Ann Arbor Times.
These sound like local news operations and are part of a network of nearly 50 such websites launched in the past few months in Michigan.
None of these websites are local, however, reports Lansing State Journal, a daily newspaper that is located where its masthead indicates, in Lansing, Michigan.
They represent Metric Media LLC’s efforts to fill the “growing void in local and community news after years of steady disinvestment in local reporting by legacy media,” according to the “About” sections on these websites.
These websites — the State Journal tallied 47 — are organized under Metric Media Foundation, a nonprofit that was formed in February in Missouri and received 501©(3) status in August. Aside from listing the registered agent, an attorney in Missouri, there’s no public information on the operations or what exactly Metric Media’s intent is with these websites. None of the websites even list staff members.
These websites don’t have a public-facing way to make money. There are no ads on these websites and there is no place to subscribe. Instead, these websites are likely meant to share conservative perspectives, but instead of being transparent about these publications’ political leanings, these websites are posing as run-of-the-mill, local publishers, one expert told the State Journal.
Metric Media is a division of Situation Management Group Inc., a firm that specializes in crisis response but provides a number of other marketing services. It has offices in Texas, California, D.C. and China. SMG CEO Brad Cameron says in his profile that Metric Media “operates more than 1,100 community-based news sites,” but those websites are not listed anywhere online. The website doesn’t make it clear if they serve as part of the marketing operation or if they are somehow independent, the latter seeming unlikely as they don’t have ads.
The company is behind web-based Palmetto Business Daily, which posts a lot of low-quality stories that are easy to find in web searches. One such story is under the headline “39.5% unemployed in Hopkins in 2017” and notes that nearly 2 in 5 people ages 16-65 in the small, Richland County community do not have a job. The story reports that this is above the statewide unemployment level of 39.3%.
Wait. Did you know that South Carolina’s unemployment rate is approaching 40%?
The number is technically accurate, but misleading. This figure counts students, homemakers and some retirees as being unemployed because they don’t currently work. Considering someone unemployed because they are finishing high school or homeschooling their children is ludicrous, which is why the official rate works to omit those who aren’t looking for work.
Another piece was on 8.9% of Cokesbury households receiving SNAP benefits in 2017. There was little context to interpret the information, which the website sourced to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
As of Monday night, the website had posted 3,354 stories this month alone, many like the ones above. That is a lot of stories — more than any but the largest newsrooms in South Carolina can churn out a month — but the website doesn’t list any writers and most appear under the byline: “Palmetto Business Daily Reports.”
All but a handful are short, formulaic constructions with arbitrary art elements that don’t always match the story subject. With the quantity of similar, data-derived stories, it’s likely that a bot created these stories and not a person.
Headlines on the bulk of these stories contain the name of a small, South Carolina community, including such towns as Arial, Branchville, Fairplay, Fingerville, Jacksonboro and Mountville. Hundreds of others included ZIP codes. These prominent local references appear to be a tactic for search engine optimization that seems aimed at getting eyeballs from across the Palmetto State.
Besides these stories, it posts a few press releases along with a trickle of pieces that seem to promote conservative-leaning, pro-business policies.
Under the umbrella of the Metro Business Network, one such site exists for each state and for Washington, D.C., all with very similar content. Compared to the others, the South Carolina one has caught fire on social media, with nearly 4,000 combined followers between Facebook and Twitter.
According to the terms of service on all Metric Media websites we could find, these websites are run by Locality Labs LLC. According to SEC filings, this company previously went under the names Blockshopper LLC and Journatic LLC. The latter made headlines a few years ago when it formed a partnership with Tribune Co. that was short lived after allegations of ethical violations, including plagiarism, fabrications and faked bylines against Journatic forced the newspaper corporation to end the partnership.
Opaque management and funding, misleading stories, ethically challenged operators and the guise of local reporting — these websites should not make your list of trusted news sources.
If Metric Media is doing business in South Carolina beyond the Palmetto Business Daily, it has done so without incorporating in South Carolina. Our Google searches have not turned up any such outlets purporting to report on the Lakelands.
It’s darn easy to buy a local-sounding domain, however, and it wouldn’t be difficult for Metric Media or some other organization to create a fake news website targeting one of our communities. If someone wanted to start The Hodges Herald or Ninety Six News, the domains thehodgesherald.com and ninetysixnews.com are available. Heck, wrecktoday.com is back on the market if someone wants it. GoDaddy will sell you one of these domains for just $11.99. After the first year, it would cost $17.99 for each additional year. That’s without any kind of bulk discount.
If you have your own servers and your own content management systems, which Metric Media likely does, there is little additional cost to set up one of these websites. That means you don’t have to fleece too many people to make this worthwhile.
Knowing where your news comes from is important, as is understanding what biases exist in those organizations. If you want to get quality, South Carolina news, get it from journalists in South Carolina.
If you find the state’s many middle-of-the-road newspapers to be too left for you, there are other conservative news sources that still do a great job of covering the state. FITSNews, for instance, regularly breaks statewide stories and never pulls punches. It’s run by editor Will Folks, who lives in South Carolina. Sure, he’s controversial and had to pay out one whole dollar in damages from a successful libel suit — plus what were probably hefty legal fees — but he works hard and does an honest job in running his website.
More importantly, he’s covering South Carolina from South Carolina, not through some data-driven bots and out-of-state companies.