The Pennsylvania Independent is, in effect, a new kind of political-journalism hybrid that’s gaining popularity on the left — just part of a quiet, four-state, $28 million election-year effort by the liberal-leaning American Independent Foundation and partner groups aimed at swaying voters in the mid-term elections.
Only the articles provide a clue to the underlying intent: A piece in the October issue described opposition to “any gun safety measure” by “New Jersey resident” Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate for the Pennsylvania Senate. Other stories detailed President Biden’s domestic manufacturing initiative, Republican denial of the 2020 election results and a proposal for a national abortion ban by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.).
“All the reporting that we put in the papers is fact-checked and verified,” said Jessica McCreight, a former Democratic consultant who serves as the operation’s executive editor. “It just so happens that it’s Republicans who do bad things and Democrats who do good things.”
The Independent has quietly positioned itself on the fringes of an emerging and controversial industry driven by ideological donors seeking to further political agendas with old-fashioned journalism, down to the ornate gothic typefaces.
As local newspapers have collapsed under increased competition for online advertising, niche news products with private funding sources have sprung up to fill the void. Some, like the American Independent network of newspapers, act as a kind of direct mail persuasion piece, while others republish and repurpose content on hundreds of websites with hyperlocal names like the Fond Du Lac Times in Wisconsin and the Boulder Leader in Colorado. Further experiments have sought to build actual newsrooms in key swing states to attract audiences to more ideological views.
The new journalism — and the PR companies behind it
The projects have worried journalism educators, who worry that the newcomers are deceiving readers, undermining the reputations of existing journalistic brands and, in some cases, failing to meet even the profession’s basic standards, such as disclosing conflicts of interest or seeking multiple perspectives on contentious issues.
Peter Adams, senior vice president at the News Literacy Project, a group that has partnered with The Washington Post on educational programs, says products like the Independent need to be called out.
“It’s one thing if you have a political purpose and you’re sincere about it. It’s another thing if you try the move of standards-based institutional local media that strives to serve the public interest,” Adams says. “That’s unethical. And it is clearly designed to co-opt the credibility of what we have always known as the press.”
Progressive defenders of the projects, however, argue that they are legitimate attempts to build an unyielding media ecosystem to counter the prominence of conservative news.
A relatively fresh news operation, Courier Newsroom, founded by former Democratic operative Tara McGowan, has built online news sites in eight presidential swing states, with about 70 journalists covering a wide range of topics, while exposing major donors. Another set of online communities, PushBlack and Pulso, which has been supported by the nonprofit media lab Accelerate Change, seeks to recreate the spirit of ethnic media, with regular posts about cultural pride and concern, interspersed with civic engagement efforts, including information on how to “affirm your voice status.”
Dmitri Mehlhorn, co-founder of Investing in US, an investment fund backed by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, says the new business is necessary and effective.
“You end up funding things like The American Independent and Courier and PushBlack at the end of a long decision tree, where you’re looking for ways to combat disinformation,” Mehlhorn said. “We believe at this point that you have to keep your news objective, and that’s not consistent with pretending to be non-partisan.”
On the right, a conservative network called Local Government Information Services funds a network of local online publications in Illinois, supported by 11 regional print editions that are mailed to homes. Others, like the liberal Local Report and hundreds of sites run by the conservative Metric Media, embrace hyperlocal news brands on websites, often with content that is little more than recycled and unfiltered content, with headlines that read “Broadcasting Press Release.”
Copies of one of Metric Media’s properties, The Grand Canyon Times, have arrived in mailboxes in Arizona, filled with positive stories about Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters and aggregate information about high school sports. The recipients have written pictures on Twitter of a disclaimer on the paper that reads “Paid for by Saving America PAC,” a group supporting Masters’ election bid. Metric Media and Local Government Information Services did not respond to requests for comment.
Since the spring, the American Independent Foundation, a nonprofit organization that does not disclose its donors, has sent 3.2 million monthly magazines to households selected because they contain ideologically moderate and progressive female voters, according to McCreight.
That gives the brand a print circulation greater than the top 25 print dailies in the country combined, as measured by the Alliance for Audited Media. In addition to Pennsylvania, about 1.1 million households in Michigan and nearly 600,000 households each in Wisconsin and Ohio have experienced problems.
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“Ron Johnson Made Millions on China Connection,” read the cover of a recent issue of Wisconsin, referring to the incumbent GOP senator’s investment in an Oshkosh-based plastics firm, where he previously worked, that has a parent company with operations in China. “Billion dollar electric vehicle production facility opens in Ohio thanks to Biden,” read another headline in that state. A Michigan publication led with good news about the Democratic governor: “WHITMER BRINGS TECH INVESTMENT HOME TO MICHIGAN.”
The operation, with 13 writers and six editors, is run in partnership with American Bridge, the largest Democratic opposition research group. Oliver Willis, a former top writer for Media Matters for America, the liberal media watchdog, serves as the paper’s senior writer. Matt Fuehrmeyer, a former research director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, serves as the group’s president.
David Brock, a founder of Bridge and Media Matters who helped start the Independent, said the idea for a newsprint program grew out of research that showed strong trust in local news, particularly among women.
“Independent women are not cable news junkies. They’re on Facebook but they don’t trust it. What they trusted from the survey that we did was local print news,” he said. “This is in the tradition of advocacy journalism. It comes from a center-left point of view. We try to highlight actors who stand in the way of progress.”
During the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election, the American Independent conducted a test to see if the newspapers sent to voter homes could change behavior. Post-election surveys by True Blue Media compared the behavior of people who had received the newspaper’s e-mail and a similar group of voters who had not. The test showed newspaper recipients were 2.2 percent more likely than the control group to support Biden and 6.3 percent more likely to vote for Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor, McCreight said.
The Independent is planning another round of tests after the midterms to see how well the newspapers did in motivating voters to go to the polls. The hope, McCreight said, is to hire more staff before the 2024 election.
“It’s reminiscent of a bygone era,” she said. “We want to build on that trust to keep this going for a long time to come.”
The Independent’s political stance has not been adopted by other progressive media upstarts. At the Courier, McGowan has gone to great lengths to try to gain journalistic credibility for his newsrooms, which publish on sites with names like UpNorthNews in Wisconsin and The Gander in Michigan.
Their coverage is much broader than just election news, although McGowan does tests to see if there are effects on voting behavior among her readership. Before the Iowa primaries this year, she bought ads to push content to potential Democratic voters from the Iowa Starting Line, her publication in that state. After the election, which was first reported by Wired magazine, she tested whether those targeted had voted more than those who didn’t, and concluded that the content had helped get thousands of votes.
But McGowan says her business is not focused on election results. The operation’s mission statement sets another goal: “to protect and strengthen our democracy through credible, fact-based journalism that seeks to create a more informed, engaged and representative America.”
“Building long-term trust and engagement with our audiences is our top priority; it’s why we disclose our funding sources, why we hire reporters who live in the communities they serve, and why we’ve built a growing community of nearly 1 million subscribers who engage with our newsrooms year-round,” McGowan said in a statement.
“At a time when trust in media and institutions is rapidly declining, any media effort that portrays itself as something it is not for short-term political gain does more harm than good,” she added.
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Courier Newsroom founder Tara McGowan. It has been corrected.