“These websites have headlines, stories, and reporters. Anyone who didn’t know better would think they were just reporting the news.”

From a column by Christian Trejbai on seattletimes.com headlined “Partisan news sites could displace, but never replace, newspapers”:

When I talk to people about the dire state of local news, they often tell me that they aren’t too worried about the local free press disappearing because modern, digital media will replace it.

If only. Rather than reliable news sources, America is getting partisan pseudo-news. . . .

Newspapers have put a lot of effort into trying to capture younger audiences. Many were slow to transform, but in the past decade most have shifted to a digital-first model. That means they publish their content online first, rather than as an afterthought to the print edition. Multimedia content and social engagement are meant to appeal not just to younger readers but to all modern news consumers.

They’re still struggling, though.

Sensing an opportunity, news websites have sprung up, but they aren’t what news consumers thought they’d be. The new wave of news sites reflects the deep political divides in the country.

Jessica Mahone and Philip Napoli, researchers at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University, inventoried what they called “partisan media masquerading as state and local reporting” in hundreds of communities across the country. They reported their findings in an article for Harvard’s Nieman Lab.

These websites look like a legitimate news source. They have headlines, stories, reporters and so on. Anyone who didn’t know better would think they were just reporting the news.

But they aren’t just reporting the news. The sites choose their stories and frame them in ways to support political goals. Many of their stories are just regurgitated news releases from politicians, candidates and advocacy groups that the operators support. . . .

Most of the more than 400 sites documented in the report are conservative. . . .

Progressives are in on the game, too, though. The liberal Courier Newsroom network has state news sites in seven politically competitive states. A Democratic-aligned digital organization called Acronym created and funded it. According to Politico, Courier has spent more than $1.4 million on Facebook ads “to promote its flattering articles and videos about more than a dozen endangered House Democrats.”

There’s nothing wrong with partisan sites pushing their agenda if they are transparent about it. It’s when they try to hide their agenda that things get dicey. Free speech and a free press are siblings, but they aren’t twins.

Partisan sites insist they are trustworthy news sources. “Franklin Archer brings coverage to underreported areas of American life. From community news to regional government to national legal policy, our publishing network covers a spectrum of vital information,” that site declares.

As partisan-driven stories from seemingly legitimate sites splash across social media, news consumers won’t know what to believe or, worse, will believe everything. . . .

All of which leaves the future of news in an even more precarious situation than many people realize. Partisans will pay for red- and blue-tinted news, but fewer and fewer people seem willing to pay for black and white.

Christian Trejbal is a Portland, Oregon, based editorial writer who writes about saving the free press. Email [email protected]

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