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News Fakes

Your State’s Been Pink-Slimed

A pink slime has been spreading across America. At last count, it has infested more than 1,200 sites.

Pink-slime news sites, that is. The name comes from being the journalistic equivalent of the beef industry’s byproduct called pink slime, a.k.a., Lean, Finely Textured Beef, used as filler in frozen and fast foods.

Don’t be fooled by their down-home mastheads, like the Tuscaloosa Leader, Hoosier State Today, or St. Cloud Sun. Those sound like local news outlets. They’re not. They’re not even wholly human. Their articles are mostly harvested by bots, then cloned to hundreds of websites — the opposite of local reporting.

The Hinsdalean newspaper article: 'Hinsdale School News' is no such thing

Pink slime sightings

In March 2019, The Hinsdalean, a small-town Illinois paper, found a fake school newspaper campaigning against increasing the school district’s budget. Their headline read “‘Hinsdale School News’ is no such thing.”

We’re hearing people who are very upset because they recognize someone is trying to deceive the community and put our marks on a paper and trying to make it look like it comes from us.

Bruce Law, Hinsdale School Superintendent
Interlocking directorates of the four pink-slime publishing networks
Network organizational structure

In October 2019, the Lansing State Journal spotted nearly forty websites masquerading as local news. Soon after, Priyanjana Bengani, of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, via ace tech-detective work, unearthed five cross-country, interconnected, centrally controlled publishing networks (Metric Media LLCLocality LabsFranklin ArcherRecord Inc., and Local Government Information Services — the accompanying diagram charts their overlapping organizational structure).

Together, she reported in December 2019, they managed more than 450 pink-slime websites. By August 2020, that number had nearly tripled.

Pink Slime USA

Here’s a map updating the work of Philip Napoli and Jessica Mahone, from Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. It plots the locations of 1,234 pretend-local news sites. (See the spreadsheet data and the Slime By State tables below). The colors indicate coverage area:
red for localities (e.g., city)
purple for regions (e.g. county)
grey for statewide

What’s the purpose of pink slime?

How partisan is pink slime? Where does it come from? Does it come in peace, bringing “coverage to underreported areas of American life” and “data-driven news about your community”? Does it have evil intent — hijacking ad dollars from legit local news, maybe a paid propaganda propagator or sleeper cells for an October surprise? Dunno. Not yet.

I’m investigating those mysteries right now and hope to have answers for an upcoming post. Until then, I’ll recommend Aleszu Bajak’s Storybench examination of slime site content and offer this table, showing the pink slime that covers your state.

State slime tables

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A pink-slime timeline

The following articles track the spread of pink-slime. Listed first are reports from the last two years about not-local local news sites. Below are stories from 2012 documenting an early incarnation of a pink-slime machine.

2019–2020

2012

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