By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

How a former Iowa newspaper’s name was hijacked to produce AI-generated clickbait

Clayton County, Iowa. Photo (cc) 2011 by Jsayre64.

The Clayton County Register was a respected Iowa newspaper. Founded in 1926, it lives on, having merged with The North Iowa Times in 2020. The new paper was named the Times-Register.

But that’s not the only way that the paper lives on. Kate Knibbs reports in Wired that the domain name,, is being repurposed to generate investment-oriented clickbait using artificial intelligence. Indeed, if you look at the Register’s homepage right now, you’ll find a gigantic headline, “New York Community Bancorp Faces Uphill Battle Amid Regional Banking Crisis,” accompanied by what is almost certainly an AI-generated image and a byline attributed to Emmanuel Ellerbee.

Ellerbee, Knibbs tells us, has some 30,845 articles to his credit, which is a level of output that even the greediest corporate newspaper owner would respect.

Although Knibbs doesn’t use the term “pink slime,” what she found would appear to fit: it’s garbage content, written under apparently fake bylines, taking advantage of a legacy newspaper’s brand and reputation in order to suck people in. Not that whoever is behind the faux Clayton County Register much cares about trying to lure the locals.

Knibbs begins her story by telling us about an investor named Tony Eastin who stumbled upon the Register while researching a pharmaceutical stock. Much of the story is devoted to how Eastin and his friend Sandeep Abraham tried to get to the bottom of this weird tale. They weren’t entirely successful, but they did find that a Linux server in Germany and a Polish website appeared to be involved. So, too, was a Chinese operation called “the Propaganda Department of the Party Committee of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” Knibbs writes:

Although Eastin and Abraham suspect that the network which the Register’s old site is now part of was created with straightforward moneymaking goals, they fear that more malicious actors could use the same sort of tactics to push misinformation and propaganda into search results. “This is massively threatening,” Abraham says. “We want to raise some alarm bells.”

One of the dangers of the local news crisis is that bad actors can move in and create what appears to be local content that is really anything but. There’s Pink Slime 1.0, going back about a dozen years, which employed low-wage workers in far-off locations like the Philippines to write stories for zombie newspapers. There’s Pink Slime 2.0, in which mostly right-wing websites are given semi-plausible-sounding names like the North Boston News (!) to spread political propaganda. And now, increasingly, we’re seeing examples of Pink Slime 3.0, which adds AI to the mix.

Although these sites don’t represent much of a threat at the moment, that could change. After all, the infrastructure is being put into place.

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  1. Thanks for your analysis of our article, Dan. I want to clarify that we did not imply the Chinese Communist Party with running Clayton County Register, but that we did narrow down our attribution to a single individual and his company in Poland who we highly suspect based on a lot of other evidence. I’d encourage you to read our whole report, where we lay out screenshots and technical evidence:

    That said, I think calling this phenomenon Pink Slime 3.0 is a really informative and educational way to think of it, and I think we can use that as a structuring term when investigating more of this. And I fully agree with your point about how this exacerbates the local news crisis. Thank you again!

  2. Paul Hutch

    One of those large philanthropic organizations that’s trying to help local journalism should set up an entity to accept transfer of the old domain names and keep them shut down. The decades long costs involved are relatively tiny if all they provide is a simple landing page that either redirects to the new domain or simply states the local paper closed down for good.

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