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A tale of Russian propaganda, international intrigue and pink slime — with a Boston angle

Vladimir Putin reads the Boston Times. Why aren’t you? Photo (cc) 2022 by Presidential Executive Office of Russia.

Call it a tale of Russian propaganda, international intrigue and pink slime. The New York Times today has a fascinating story (free link) about John Mark Dougan, a former law-enforcement official in Florida and Maine who has become a significant producer of online disinformation on behalf of Russia. Dougan’s digital network promotes lies about everything from claims that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a cocaine smuggler to the fanciful notion that the CIA and the Ukrainian government are working together to harm Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

One of Dougan’s many vehicles, according to the story, is something called the Boston Times. Hmmm. Whenever Ellen Clegg and I talk about our book, “What Works in Community News,” we mention the rise of websites designed to look like legitimate sources of local news — my rough definition of pink slime.

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Our favorite is the North Boston News (North Boston is lovely this time of year), part of the 1,200 or so sites controlled by Metric Media, which in turn goes back to the earliest days of pink slime about a dozen years ago. Those sites are nominally right-wing, though they mainly carry outdated filler like “5.5% of citizens unemployed in Essex County in 2021” and “2022: 14.5% of Essex County students played sports on collegiate teams.” That said, there is a conspiracy-minded story at North Boston News right now falsely claiming that “Jewish left-wing activist” George Soros was behind the recent pro-Palestinian encampment at MIT, which suggests there may be worse to come.

But the Boston Times? That was a new one. I couldn’t get it to pop on Google, yet somehow DuckDuckGo managed to find it. The site seems to be mix of lurid tabloid stories (“Florida Woman’s Public Sex Escape”) and weird pro-Trump content (“Trump Orders Arrest of Journalist for Reporting on Court Filings”). Minor news from New York City is featured, too. Click on the verticals, including “Politics,” “Ukraine War” and “Gaza War,” and the Russian ties become more obvious and disturbing. Here, for instance, is the headline to a false story under “Investigations”: “New Evidence Emerges of Ukraine’s Horrific ‘Forced Fertilization’ Program, Inspired by Nazi Lebensborn.”

The “About” page is a hoot. Here’s how it begins:

Since its inception in 1972, located in the heart of Massachusetts, the Boston Times has been a beacon of journalistic integrity, illuminating the stories that shape our city, our nation, and our world. Founded with a vision to provide a platform for truth, fairness, and accountability, the Boston Times has evolved into a trusted source of news and information for generations of readers.

Of course, there’s no evidence that the Boston Times even existed until recently (I’m not counting a paper by that name that was published between 1887 and 1915), and the bylines, according to The New York Times’ story, may be generated by artificial intelligence. It looks like AI had a hand in designing the logo, too. Among other things, the Boston Times pledges to deliver “Truth and Uboutelicy.” All right, then!

Reach seems to be limited, especially given that I couldn’t find it on Google. I couldn’t find an account for it on Twitter/X, either, although I did find tweets debunking the site as Russian disinformation, such as this one by David Puente. But I also found some of the propaganda on the Boston Times site being promoted by accounts that are probably bots. That sort of automated amplification is the point.

Is the goal of projects such as the Boston Times to persuade? Probably not. Rather, the goal is to “flood the zone with shit,” to quote the political philosopher Steve Bannon. These days truth floats in a sea of falsehood. Its purveyors hope you’ll just throw up your hands at the thought of trying to sort it all out. Don’t fall for it. Get your news from reliable, verified sources.

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Local news round-up: Disturbing revelations in NH, plus pink slime and Google’s thuggish tactics

New Hampshire Statehouse in Concord. Photo (cc) 2012 by AlexiusHoratius

The Boston Globe published a story Friday about a New Hampshire state representative named Jonathan Stone, an ex-police officer who — according to recently released records that he tried to keep secret — “spoke of killing police and raping the chief’s wife and children.”

As the Globe notes, the story was broken on April 5 by Damien Fisher of InDepthNH, a nonprofit news organization that covers politics and public policy in the Granite State. Fisher’s story begins:

Republican Rep. Jon Stone’s New Hampshire law enforcement career ended when he threatened to kill fellow police officers in a shooting spree, and murder his chief after raping the chief’s wife and children, all while he was already under scrutiny for his inappropriate relationship with a teen girl, according to the internal investigation reports finally released this week.

Yikes. Fisher writes that he first filed a right-to-know request in 2020, and that the records were ordered released last month by New Hampshire’s Supreme Court. InDepthNH executive editor and founder Nancy West was a guest on our “What Works” podcast in November 2022.

In Ohio, DIY pink slime

Jack Brewster of NewsGuard, a project that tracks the rise of pink slime news sites, has written an essay for The Wall Street Journal (free link) that is at turns harrowing and hilarious. Spending just $105, he put together a website powered by artificial intelligence that’s designed to look like a local news outlet. Per his specifications, the site, which he called the Buckeye State Press, was designed with a right-wing bias, favoring Republican Senate candidate Bernie Moreno over the Democratic incumbent, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown.

Brewster used an Israeli-based service called to build the site, which in turn was programmed by a Pakistani freelancer named Huzafa Nawaz. Brewster writes:

From there, all I had to do was answer a few questions about what kind of site I was looking for and the topics I wanted the site’s articles to cover. The domain and site hosting added an extra $25 to the total. The entire AI content farm cost me just $105, and I literally have to do nothing to operate it. It runs itself, auto-publishing dozens of articles a day based on the instructions that I gave to it.

I’ve been following developments in pink slime off and on for the past decade, and what I’ve found is that they are pretty inept. That proved to be the case with Brewster’s experiment as well — at one point his site hallucinated Brown’s attendance at a local fig festival. At some point, though, these projects are going to evolve into effective sources of political propaganda, which we all need to be concerned about.

Google plays hardball in California

As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m skeptical of legislative attempts to force Google and Facebook to pay news organizations for the journalism that they repurpose. If anything, the notion has become more nonsensical over time, as Facebook’s parent company, Meta, has made it clear that it would just as soon eliminate news content on platforms like Facebook and Threads.

Google is a different matter, but no less complicated. News publishers want money from Google, but at the same time exactly none of them add the necessary code to their sites which would make them invisible to Google, because they’re dependent on traffic from the giant search engine, too.

Still, it’s hard not to be outraged by Google’s latest tactic. According to Jeremy B. White of Politico, Google is blocking access to some local news content in parts of California as it fights against state legislation that would force them to pay news organizations. White writes:

“We have long said that this is the wrong approach to supporting journalism,” Google’s vice president for global news partnerships, Jaffer Zaidi, said in a Friday blog post. Zaidi warned the bill could “result in significant changes to the services we can offer Californians and the traffic we can provide to California publishers.”

Well, I guess so. These are the tactics of a thug, and yet another sign that the tech giants have amassed way too much power.

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California dreaming

It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on here. But Lana Bellamy of the Times Union in Albany, New York, has a story about a local district attorney named David Hoovler who’s been working with a public relations agency in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to produce favorable stories about him that are published in pink-slimy websites like California Weekly. My guess is that Hoovler’s getting ripped off.

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Gannett is doing business with a notorious purveyor of pink slime

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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Emily Rooney talks about local TV news, ‘Beat the Press’ and holding the media to account

Emily Rooney. Photo via the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

On our latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Emily Rooney, the longtime host of “Beat the Press,” an award-winning program on WGBH-TV (Channel 2). I was a panelist on the show, a weekly roundtable that offered local and national media criticism. It had a 22-year run but was canceled in 2021. You can watch the 20th-anniversary episode here. The show, which is much missed by many former viewers, had a brief second life as a podcast.

Emily has got serious television news cred. She arrived at WGBH from the Fox Network in New York, where she oversaw political coverage, including the 1996 presidential primaries, national conventions, and presidential election. Before that, she was executive producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight” with Peter Jennings. She also worked at WCVB-TV in Boston for 15 years, from 1979–’93, as news director and as assistant news director — a time when WCVB was regularly hailed as the home of the best local newscast in the U.S.

“Beat the Press” may be no more, but there’s a revival of interest in responsible media criticism from inside the newsroom. Boston Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr recently wrote an op-ed calling for the restoration of a public editor position at The New York Times, The Boston Globe and other news outlets.

In our Quick Takes, I’ve got an update on one of our favorite topics — pink slime. Wired has a wild story out of rural Iowa involving a Linux server in Germany, a Polish website and a Chinese operation called “the Propaganda Department of the Party Committee of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”

Ellen recounts a legal saga in Southeastern Minnesota involving the sale of a newspaper group and allegations of intellectual property theft. It’s all about a single used computer and its role in creating a media startup.”

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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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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Priyanjana Bengani talks about ‘pink slime’ and her research on disinformation

Priyanjana Bengani

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen and I talk with Priyanjana Bengani, a fellow in computational journalism at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Her work focuses on using computational techniques to research issues in digital media.

Her most recent project, published in the Columbia Journalism Review, focused on uncovering networks of “pink slime” local news outlets. There have been several iterations of pink slime sites over the years, such as the North Boston News. Bengani has studied partisan political sites disguised as genuine community news organizations. (There’s no such place as “North Boston,” by the way.) They get their name from the pinkish beef paste that is added to hamburger meat.

In Quick Takes, I revisit Press Forward, the $500 million philanthropic effort aimed at revitalizing local news. When Press Forward was announced a few months ago, many observers were worried that a national, top-down effort might clash with local needs and local concerns. Fortunately, Press Forward is now getting involved in the grassroots in an attempt to leverage its funding and help a wide range of local and regional news projects.

Ellen delves into a piece in Racket, an alternative news site in Minneapolis. (The What Works podcast with editor and co-owner Em Cassel can be found here.) Racket takes a steely-eyed look at Steve Grove, the new CEO and publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Just before taking the journalism job, Grove settled a lawsuit alleging he withheld public records from the press when he was a state government official.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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Brant Houston talks about his new book, which chronicles two decades of disruption

Brant Houston

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Brant Houston, who is hard to describe in one sentence: he’s an author, an educator, an investigative journalist, an expert in data-based reporting, and a co-founder of the Global Investigative Journalism Network and the Institute for Nonprofit News.

His new book, “Changing Models for Journalism,” chronicles the history of change, disruption and reinvention in our industry over the past two decades. These are themes we explore on this podcast, and in our own forthcoming book, “What Works in Community News.” Brant takes us back to the early days of digital and recounts the early optimism, and the early misconceptions, about the promise and the peril of the internet.

I’ve got a Quick Take on Pink Slime Journalism 3.0. We’ve seen an explosion of websites that might be called Pink Slime 2.0 as political operatives have sought to take advantage of the decline in real local news. That followed Pink Slime 1.0 — an outbreak about a decade ago of local news being produced by low-paid workers in distant locales, including the Philippines. Now, NewsGuard reports that dubious online content powered by artificial intelligence is spreading.

Ellen looks at the numbers in the 2023 impact report on local news by the INN. And there’s some good news: As the nonprofit journalism field expands, the resources to sustain these newsrooms are expanding, too.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

A new report finds that content farms are loading up on AI. Will local news be next?

Meet your new reporting staff. Photo (cc) 2023 by Dan Kennedy.

A recent report by NewsGuard, a project that evaluates news organizations for reliability and transparency, found that clickbait generated by artificial intelligence is on the rise. McKenzie Sadeghi and Lorenzo Arvanitis write:

NewsGuard has identified 49 news and information sites that appear to be almost entirely written by artificial intelligence software. A new generation of content farms is on the way.

The report didn’t specifically identify any local news websites that are using AI to write low-quality stories aimed at getting clicks and programmatic advertising. Perhaps non-local stories about health, entertainment and tech, to name three of the topics for which content farms are using AI, more readily fly under the radar. If you’re going to use AI to produce articles about the local tax rate or the women’s track team, you’re going to get caught pretty quickly when the results prove to be wrong. Still, the use of AI to produce some forms of local news, such as routine articles about real-estate transactions, is not new.

According to the NewsGuard report, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort yet to use AI in order to produce deliberately false stories, although there have been a few examples, including a celebrity death site that claimed President Biden had “passed away peacefully in his sleep.”

Call this Pink Slime 3.0. Version 1.0 was low-tech compared to what’s available today. Back in 2012, the public radio program “This American Life” found that a company called Journatic (pronounced “joor-NAT-ik,” though I always thought it should be “JOOR-nuh-tik”) was producing local content for newspapers using grossly underpaid, out-of-town reporters — including cheap Filipino workers who wrote articles under fake bylines.

Pink Slime 2.0, of more recent vintage, consists of hundreds of websites launched to exploit the decline of local news. Under such banners as “North Boston News” (!), these sites purport to offer community journalism but are actually a cover for political propaganda. Nearly all of them serve right-wing interests, thought there were a few on the left as well.

Pink Slime 3.0 threatens to become more insidious as AI continues to improve. As Seth Smalley wrote for Poynter Online, this is “pink slime on steroids.”

Of course, AI could prove to be a boon for local news, as Sebastian Grace wrote last week for What Works, our Northeastern journalism project tracking developments in community journalism. By eliminating repetitive drudge work, AI can free journalists to produce high-value stories that really matter.

Still, bottom-feeders like CNET — not exactly a content farm, but not much better than that, either — have already been caught publishing error-laden stories with AI. You can only imagine what sort of advice these content farms are going to give people about dealing with their medical problems.

OpenAI, which likes to portray itself as a responsible player in discussions about the future of AI, would not respond to NewsGuard’s inquiries. Neither would Facebook, which is amplifying AI-generated content.

The only thing we can be sure of is that a new, more insidious version of pink slime is coming to a website near you — if it hasn’t already.

Hermione Malone tells us how philanthropies can partner with local news outlets

Hermione Malone, left, of the American Journalism Project

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Hermione Malone, vice president of strategy and startups for the American Journalism Project. The AJP describes itself as a nonprofit venture philanthropy organization that focuses on supporting the future of local news. The organization makes grants to nonprofit news organizations, partners with communities to launch new outlets, and coaches leaders as they grow and sustain their newsrooms.

Hermione oversees local philanthropy partnerships. In that role, she helps nonprofit news startups get launched and nurtures coalitions of community stakeholders and local philanthropies. Her career has included work in diversity and inclusion and in community outreach. As executive director of Go.Be, a New Orleans-based nonprofit, she coached businesses owned by people of color and women, helping them figure out how to grow.

Ellen’s got a Quick Take is on Permian Proud, a pink-slime site put up by Chevron that provides a gusher of one-sided PR spin. Mine is on new research by Josh Stearns, senior director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund. Josh has fresh evidence that shows that local news is vital for democracy.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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