A New York Times report published Sunday revealed that hundreds of news sites cropping up nationwide are part of a growing media empire with content largely controlled by conservative think tanks, political operatives and public-relations executives. Ohio is now home to more than 50 of these sites, which are aimed chiefly at promoting Republican candidates, including President Donald Trump, and trashing their opponents.
The Cincy Reporter, North Cincy News, Butler County Today, Clermont Times, Warren Clinton News and others are all part of the Metric Media network.
The sites feature identical minimalistic graphic design and share much of the same content across the state, produced mainly by freelancers making anywhere from $3 to $36 per article, the Times reported.
Some of the content is not only shaped but produced directly by "clients" who pay for their own promotion. Such arrangements are violations of traditional journalism ethics.
On the Cincy Reporter, the lead story is an opinion piece attributed to the Donald Trump campaign's senior advisor for strategy, Steve Cortes. It describes three reasons why Cincinnati should re-elect Trump and repudiate the Biden agenda. The top-line item is "dangerous illegal migrant crime," heavily referencing "an illegal immigrant, Benjamin DeLeon Hernandez, (who) was arrested by Cincinnati police and had already been deported five times before."
The Times story notes that while the sites "generally do not post information that is outright false, the operation is rooted in deception, eschewing hallmarks of news reporting like fairness and transparency. Only a few dozen of the sites disclose funding from advocacy groups."
Metric Media, founded by "TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur" Brian Timpone, is not strictly a digital operation. In some markets, the company has acquired legacy print outlets and — in the mold of other conglomerates — promptly cut staff and "streamlined" operations, to the detriment of local readers.
That's what happened in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, according to the Times report. In August, Metric Media purchased the only print newspaper in the town, about 40 miles northeast of Columbus. The paper then did what all papers do right before it lays off employees and drastically reduces coverage. It proclaimed the opposite, saying that the new online version would "undergo a redesign with the addition of more local content and (would) continue to keep our readership up to date with breaking news, incorporating technology to assist readers and enhance stories."
But the reality was far different, according to the Times.
Tanner Salyers, a city councilman in Mount Vernon, population 17,000, said that when he emailed Metric Media to ask what its plans were for the town’s only newspaper, Mr. Timpone called back to say that he now owned the Mount Vernon News and that he would rebuild it. Yet since the change in ownership, Mr. Salyers said, the newspaper has cut much of its staff and reduced print circulation to two days a week from six.
“I’m the first person to admit that the Mount Vernon News was not Pulitzer material,” Mr. Salyers said. “But nevertheless, it was local and independent. You could go to the grocery store and bump into the writers.” Now, a reporter based in Atlanta has covered local happenings, he said, and not well. When a water line broke last week, forcing the town’s residents to boil their water, the Mount Vernon News didn’t mention it.
Ohio has lost more than 40% of its working journalists since 2012. Many daily newspapers have reduced home delivery, have been acquired by national conglomerates or have closed up shop for good, as the Youngstown Vindicator did last year. The resulting news vacuums have created massive information gaps that companies like Metric Media are only too eager to fill.