In mid-February, when Pittsburgh Post-Gazette publisher John Robinson Block chose editorial page editor Keith Burris as the paper’s new executive editor, the fear that our city’s only daily would become a conservative mouthpiece spiked among local progressives.

“Journalists are supposed to work as watchdogs,” wrote the Pittsburgh Current’s Charlie Deitch. “But that’s going to be hard to do now that John Block’s lapdog is in charge.”

Adding to the apprehension was the publisher’s infamous newsroom rant, a little more than a week before Burris’s appointment, during which an eyewitness says Block claimed to have fired the last two executive editors— David Shribman and John Craig—for “disloyalty.”

Could it be that one business model for sustaining local news coverage, given the hostile economic environment described in our accompanying article, is a return to openly partisan reporting as currently exemplified by Fox News? Print and digital journalists charged with covering regional governments, businesses and organizations would be paid via revenue from political action committees (PACs) and individual donors, rather than ad and subscription revenues.

Sound far-fetched? We should remember that the model of a thoroughly professionalized journalist who strives mightily to report the news while remaining unmoved by prevailing ideological winds is little more than a century old in this country.

“Newspapers in the early republic,” writes Jill Lepore in her recent history of the United States These Truths, “… were entirely and enthusiastically partisan. They weren’t especially interested in establishing facts; they were interested in staging a battle of opinions.”

The fact-checking and investigative website Snopes recently described at length one instance of this particular “model” for a “local newspaper.” Over the last two years, a company called Star News Digital Media has set up news websites in Tennessee, Minnesota and Ohio that purport to be sources of local news.

In truth, Snopes found that “Star News websites offer a good deal of content sourced from conservative national sources who are funded by dark money—funds raised for the purpose of influencing elections by nonprofit organizations who are not required to disclose the identities of their donors.”

At this point, deception is another part of the business model, with content presented as so-called “local news” actually produced, word-for-word, by the sources mentioned above. The company’s initial site, The Tennessee Star, has an “investigative reporter” whose first by-lined article was published days after he left his position as media spokesperson for a PAC seeking to elect Bill Lee as governor. The article criticized Lee’s general election opponent, but nowhere was the reporter’s previous position revealed.

That same site’s “senior reporter” is also treasurer of a PAC run by her husband, who has also written for the site. “No firewall is apparent,” Snopes observes, “between the work of the PAC and the Tennessee Star.”

Leaders of Star News told Snopes they were trying to make a profit through advertising sales, but the only three advertisers Snopes found at the Tennessee site were companies “owned by prominent Tennessee conservatives who have donated significantly to conservative candidates, causes, and PACs in the past.”

If regional newspapers like the Post-Gazette can’t discover some way to sustain themselves, will the Star News Media model be the wave of the future? One further observation should give us pause. Pew Research reports that Americans generally consider local news “more trustworthy” than national sources. During the 2016 election, Snopes reports, “the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency … created their own fake local news sites” on occasion.

by Neil Cosgrove,  a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.

Categories: News

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