Pennsylvania’s most widely circulated newspaper showed up, without fanfare or explanation, in the mailboxes of about 1 in every 5 households in the state this April.
Newspapers with a partisan aim filling the void of traditional media
The Pennsylvania Independent is, in fact, a new sort of political-journalism hybrid becoming more popular on the left — just one part of a quiet four-state, $28 million election year effort by the liberal-leaning American Independent Foundation and partner groups aimed at swaying voters in the midterm elections.
Only the articles offer a clue of the underlying intent: A piece in the October issue described the opposition to “any gun safety measures” by “New Jersey resident” Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania. Other stories detailed President Biden’s domestic manufacturing initiative, Republican denials of the 2020 election results and a proposal for a national abortion ban by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.).
“All of the reporting that we put in the papers is fact-checked and verified,” said Jessica McCreight, a former Democratic consultant who serves as executive editor of the operation. “It just so happens that it is Republicans doing bad things and Democrats doing good things.”
The Independent has quietly positioned itself on the edge of an emerging and controversial industry fueled by ideological donors who are looking to further political agendas with the trappings of old-fashioned journalism, down to the ornate Gothic nameplate fonts.
As local newspapers have collapsed amid a rise in online advertising competition, niche news products with private funding sources have sprouted to fill the void. Some, like the American Independent network of papers, function as a sort of direct mail persuasion piece, while others republish and repurpose content on hundreds of websites with hyperlocal names like the Fond Du Lac Times in Wisconsin and the Boulder Leader in Colorado. Additional experiments have sought to build actual newsrooms in key swing states to attract audiences to more ideological views.
The new journalism — and the PR firms behind it
The projects have alarmed journalism educators, who worry that the newcomers deceive readers, undermine the reputations of existing journalistic brands, and fail, in some cases, to meet even the basic standards of the professions, like revealing conflicts of interest or seeking out multiple perspectives on contested issues.
Peter Adams, the senior vice president at the News Literacy Project, a group that has partnered with The Washington Post on educational programs, says products like the Independent need to be called out.
“It is one thing if you have a political purpose and you are being upfront about that. It’s another if you are trying on the trappings of standards-based institutional local media that aspires to serve the public interest,” Adams said. “It is unethical. And it is clearly designed to co-opt the credibility of what we have always known as the press.”
Progressive defenders of the projects, however, argue that they are legitimate attempts to build an unapologetic media ecosystem to counter the prominence of conservative news.
One relatively fresh news operation, the Courier Newsroom, founded by former Democratic operative Tara McGowan, has built online news websites in eight presidential swing states, with about 70 journalists who cover a broad range of subject matter, while disclosing major donors. Another set of online communities, PushBlack and Pulso, which have been supported by the nonprofit media lab Accelerate Change, seek to re-create the spirit of ethnic media outlets, with regular posts about cultural pride and concerns, mixed in civic-engagement efforts, including information on how to “confirm your voting status.”
Dmitri Mehlhorn, the co-founder of Investing in US, an investment fund backed by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, says the new operations are necessary and effective.
“You end up funding things like The American Independent and Courier and PushBlack at the end of a long decision tree, where you are looking for ways to fight disinformation,” Mehlhorn said. “We believe at this point that you have to have your news be objective, and that is not consistent with pretending to be nonpartisan.”
On the right, a conservative network called Local Government Information Services funds a network of local online publications in Illinois, supported by 11 regional print editions mailed to homes. Others, like the liberal Local Report and hundreds of sites run by the conservative Metric Media, embrace hyperlocal website news branding, often with content that is little more than repurposed and unfiltered content, with bylines that read “Press release submission.”
Copies of one of Metric Media’s properties, The Grand Canyon Times, have arrived in mailboxes in Arizona, filled with positive stories about Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters and aggregated information about high school sports. Recipients have posted images on Twitter of a disclaimer on the paper that reads “Paid for by Saving America PAC,” a group supporting Masters’s election bid. Metric Media and Local Government Information Services did not respond to requests for comment.
Since spring, the American Independent Foundation, a nonprofit that does not disclose its donors, has been mailing 3.2 million monthly newspapers into households that have been selected because they contain ideologically moderate and progressive female voters, according to McCreight.
That gives the brand a print circulation larger than the top 25 print daily newspapers in the nation combined, as measured by the Alliance for Audited Media. In addition to Pennsylvania, about 1.1 million households in Michigan and nearly 600,000 households each in Wisconsin and Ohio have been receiving issues.
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“Ron Johnson made millions from China Connection,” ran the cover headline of a recent Wisconsin edition, referring to the incumbent GOP senator’s investment in an Oshkosh-based plastics firm, where he previously worked and which has a parent company with business in China. “Billion-dollar electric vehicle production plant opening in Ohio thanks to Biden,” read another headline in that state. A Michigan edition led with good news about the governor: “WHITMER BRINGS TECH INVESTMENT HOME TO MICHIGAN.”
The operation, with 13 writers and six editors, is run in concert with American Bridge, the largest Democratic opposition research group. Oliver Willis, a former top writer for Media Matters for America, the liberal media watchdog, works as the publication’s senior writer. Matt Fuehrmeyer, a former director of research at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, serves as the group’s president.
David Brock, a founder of Bridge and Media Matters who helped set up the Independent, said the idea for a newsprint program grew out of research that showed high trust for local news, particularly among women.
“Independent women are not cable news junkies. They are on Facebook but they don’t trust it. The thing they trusted from the survey that we did was local print news,” he said. “This is in the tradition of advocacy journalism. It is coming from a center-left point of view. We are trying to shed light on actors who are standing in the way of progress.”
During the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election, the American Independent ran a test to see if the newspapers mailed to voter homes could change behavior. Surveys after the election by True Blue Media compared the behavior of people who had been mailed the paper and a similar group of voters who had not. The test found that newspaper recipients were 2.2 percent more likely than the control group to support Biden and 6.3 percent more likely to vote for Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor, McCreight said.
The Independent plans another round of testing after the midterms to see how well the newspapers performed in motivating voters to go to the polls. The hope, said McCreight, is to hire more staff in advance of the 2024 elections.
“It’s reminiscent of a bygone era,” she said. “We want to build on that trust to keep this going for a long time to come.”
The Independent’s political approach has not been embraced by other progressive media upstarts. At the Courier, McGowen has gone to extensive lengths to try to earn journalistic credibility for her newsrooms, which publish on sites with names like UpNorthNews in Wisconsin and The Gander in Michigan.
Their coverage is far broader than just election news, though McGowen does do tests to see if there are effects on voting behavior among her readership. Before the primaries in Iowa this year, she bought ads to push content to potential Democratic voters from the Iowa Starting Line, her publication in that state. After the election, as first reported by Wired magazine, she tested whether the people targeted had voted at higher rates than those who were not, concluding that the content had helped to drive thousands of votes.
But McGowen says her operation is not focused on electoral results. The operation’s mission statement sets a different goal: “to protect and strengthen our democracy through credible, fact-based journalism that seeks to create a more informed, engaged, and representative America.”
“Building long-term trust and engagement with our audience is our highest priority; it’s why we disclose our funding sources, why we hire reporters who live in the communities they serve, and it’s why we have built a growing community of nearly 1 million subscribers who engage with our newsrooms year-round,” McGowen said in a statement.
“In a time where trust in media and institutions are on a rapid decline, any media efforts that portray themselves to be something they are not in the interest of short-term political gain are doing more harm than good,” she added.