Photo (cc) 2023 by Ruth Hartnup.

Just when Gannett was making some good news for itself by going on something of a modest hiring spree, splat! Investigative reporter Steven Monacelli has found that our largest newspaper chain, with about 200 daily newspapers, is working with Advantage Informatics, a well-known purveyor of so-called pink slime news sites.

Pink slime is the name given to websites that masquerade as legitimate local news projects but that are actually produced from distant locales. The meaning has morphed over the years. What I call Pink Slime 1.0 arose about a dozen years ago in the form of sites whose writers appeared to be based in local communities but were actually some distance away — in some cases, as far away as the Philippines. Pink Slime 2.0 has an ideological cast, mainly but not exclusively on the right. Pink Slime 3.0 adds artificial intelligence to the mix.

What most of these sites have in common is Brian Timpone, a Chicago-based conservative businessperson who is the founder of something called Metric Media, a network of some 1,200 right-wing sites. These projects tend to be pretty inept; my favorite covers the imaginary community of North Boston.

The Gannett-Timpone connection was exposed last week in a major report for Nieman Lab written by Monacelli on Advantage Informatics, a Timpone venture that produces advertorial content. Monacelli found that, in years past, newspapers such as the Houston Chronicle (owned by Hearst since 1987) and The San Diego Union-Tribune (recently acquired by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital) have taken advantage of Timpone’s services. (The Chronicle told Monacelli that it has no record of such a  relationship.) Gannett is the one newspaper company he found that has a current, ongoing relationship with Advantage. He writes:

A Gannett spokesperson told me that the company works with Advantage Informatics on “advertorial” content. When asked about Advantage Informatics’ relationship with the broader Metric Media network, the spokesperson said, “Ethics and our values are priority for us.”

Monacelli has written quite a tale that includes a Tennessee journalism professor who used to work for Advantage and Advantage’s ambition to offer “dedicated beat reporting” of local sports, governmental meetings and “keeping a close eye” on statehouses and Congress.

On the one hand, I’m not sure it’s that big a deal who produces advertorial content. On the other, the fact is that Gannett is working with the pink slimiest company in the country. Despite Gannett’s recent good news on the hiring front, it would hardly be surprising if company executives played around with having Advantage try its hand at community coverage as well. After all, it was just a few months ago that Gannett was caught using AI to write local sports stories, to hilarious effect.

A final note: If you’d like to learn more about pink slime, Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Pri Bengani, an expert based at Columbia University who’s quoted in Monacelli’s article, on the “What Works” podcast last fall.

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