Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Partisan news outlets fill gaps left by local news cutbacks

As coverage of local and state news shrivels across the nation, partisan news outlets are flourishing—and sometimes readers aren't aware of the bias, Lauren Smiley reports for Columbia Journalism Review.

A yellowhammer (Eurekalert.org)
Yellowhammer News, named for Alabama's state bird, is a prime example. It looks like a straight news site at first glance, but it's conservative to the core: Republican political adviser Cliff Sims founded it in 2013, and recently sold his interest to Tim Howe and John Ross, both former directors of the state GOP in order to work as a communications aide in the White House, Smiley reports. Many of Yellowhammer's contributors also write for similarly slanted Breitbart News.

Sims founded Yellowhammer only months after Advance Publications merged The Birmingham News, the Montgomery Advertiser and The Huntsville Times into AL.com. The layoffs and reduced print schedule at the made for a local news gap Sims was happy to fill. Yellowhammer makes no bones about its chief competitor, and urges its readers to reject AL.com, Smiley reports.

Yellowhammer carries enough decent journalism to muddy the waters about its bias, including Associated Press wire stories and a 2016 scoop about how then-governor Robert Bentley, a Republican, ordered state law enforcement to deliver his forgotten wallet with a helicopter. It also hid the fact that Howe and Ross were its owners until 2014, when an independent journalist published a leaked email between Sims and Howe, Smiley reports.

Why try to hide its affiliations? Because readers tend to trust local newspapers more, a tendency exploited by those trying to peddle a narrative. "It’s telling that, when Russian disinformation agents of the Internet Research Agency created Twitter profiles to meddle in US politics, they often chose names that sounded like local newspapers," Smiley reports.

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, told Smiley that journalism driven by a political point of view isn't a new trend, but rather a return to an old one. "We're reverting to a bad old form," he told Smiley, referring to the days when many papers were openly partisan.

Smiley writes, "Yellowhammer is merely a relatively mature example of the attempts to create alternative local news outlets that capitalize on America’s media polarization where it dovetails with community news credibility. And as local newsrooms continue to be wiped out, other untested publishers are rushing into the void."

One is Kentucky Today, a publication of the Kentucky Baptist Convention launched in 2015 with the help of an anonymous $300,000 donation and run until recently by a former AP reporter. In addition to its original content, it offers free wire articles to 15 local papers in Western Kentucky, a tempting alternative to AP's expensive service.

Not all the alternative publications are conservative: The Greenville Gazette in South Carolina has a decidedly liberal slant, Smiley reports. Part of the problem is that social media makes it harder to identify trustworthy information sources easier to live in an ideological echo chamber. And it's no coincidence that biased news sources are proliferating as legitimate local news suffers cutbacks. Outlets like Yellowhammer "are filling the gaps," Cross told Smiley, "But I’m afraid the audience isn’t always aware it’s from a certain perspective."

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