A brief show note: This week’s show is live. Next week’s show will be partially pre-recorded from beautiful Dayton, Ohio, where I’ll be attending the annual Hamvention, one of the world’s largest amateur radio gatherings. (Or as my brother calls it, “the nerd convention.”)
I know a few people have been worried that the ongoing writers’ strike might affect my show, but if you’ve listened to my show even once, you know that no one is writing any of that crap.
Speaking of writing: I’m one of four co-authors on a new book called “American Deadline: Reporting from Four News-Starved Towns in the Trump Era.” You may actually hear me soon, being interviewed “on another network,” as they used to say.
As they used to say, “Check your local listings for times and stations.”
Or don’t. Try to find “local listings” any more. For that matter, try to find a newspaper. When the McKeesport Daily News closed at the end of 2015, it must have taken me two months before I no longer had the urge to stop at the store on the way home from work to buy a paper.
As you can see from the collection/archive/fire hazard above, although I worked for that newspaper for less than a year, it played a big role in my life.
I’ve had exchanges recently online with people who absolutely will not pay for news. They’re actually offended when someone posts a link to any publication that has a paywall: “Please don’t link to The Washington Post, I choose not to pay for content.”
It’s an odd flex. Try that with any other business and see how far you get. “I choose not to pay for plumbing repairs.” Well, enjoy wading neck-deep in feces.
Arguably, the decline of journalism is a big reason that we’re all wading neck-deep in feces — as an American society — these days.
Have you noticed that websites that usually produce responsible journalism — The Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, even The (Expletive) New York Times — have paywalls?
Meanwhile, the crap-peddling gossip sites — like The Sun and the Daily Mail — don’t. Because they don’t do actual journalism. They rip off other people’s work, add a sensationalized headline, and slap it online.
Right-wing propaganda websites don’t have paywalls, either. Breitbart, The Daily Caller, Fox News, Gateway Pundit, etc., ad infinitum, are all free.
That’s because they’re subsidized by their publishers, because those publishers want to hook you on their neo-fascist propaganda. For example, Rupert Murdoch loses money on the New York Post — according to one estimate, up to $15 million to $30 million per year. And everyone knows that. But he wants a mass-market newspaper in New York City to push his political agenda.
No wonder the top news sites linked from Facebook include the Daily Mirror (a U.K. gossip website), the Daily Wire (a far-right website run by Ben Shapiro), TMZ (the U.S. celebrity gossip website) and the Daily Mail (another U.K. gossip website).
It’s not because they produce good journalism. It’s because they’re free, and because they post outrageously distorted headlines that provoke disgust and anger. Breitbart also regularly lands among the Top 10 Facebook publishers.
You know what else is free? The content on so-called “pink slime” websites. These are websites that are designed to look like local newspapers — they even have names like “The Cook County Record” — but are actually propaganda outlets that reprint press releases. “Pink-slime journalism” gets its name from so-called “pink slime,” a manufactured meat product used by fast-food restaurants and passed off as ground beef. Pink slime looks like meat, but it really isn’t, and pink-slime websites look like local news, but they really aren’t.
Who pays for these “pink slime” websites? You guessed it: Republican Party candidates, lobbyists and far-right donors such as the Uihlein family, owners of the U-Line catalog and heirs to the Schlitz beer fortune.
There are several of these websites allegedly focused on Pittsburgh, and they’re run by one of the biggest pink-slime providers, Metric Media. The websites have names like “Pittsburgh Review” and “Southeast Allegheny News,” but you will look in vain for the names of any reporters or a local address for a newsroom. Most of the content is posted by public relations people, or automatically barfed out by computers.
So what you get are websites like Metric Media’s “Westmoreland Review,” which breathlessly reports on the most amazing congressman of all time, Republican congressman Guy Reschenthaler:
Some of the other companies that are actually being run by Metric Media include Newsinator, Local Government Information Services, Pipeline Media and Locality Labs, which together (according to Columbia Journalism Review) pumped out something like 50,000 stories in 2020 for 1,200 different “local” websites.
Pink-slime news, in short, is the information equivalent of an invasive species, such as Japanese knotweed or kudzu.
A report by Northwestern University in March of this year concluded that very few people are actually reading these “pink-slime” news websites. Instead, the real goal of these websites is to flood the Internet with right-wing crap in the hopes that one of their stories will go viral on social media.
“The question is not how many stories they post or how many people visit their websites,” said Penny Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern. “The whole goal of these sites is to post something that is so provocative or so divisive that it gets picked up on social media. It’s an algorithm play.”
Another goal of “pink-slime” news, according to the Northwestern report, is to erode the credibility of mainstream news websites (like the one that I run in my “free time,” ha ha, the Tube City Almanac).
“We’re watching this death by a thousand cuts of legitimate, trustworthy journalism,” Philip Napoli, a Duke University public policy professor, told Northwestern.
“And the next presidential election is less than 20 months away,” notes Mark Caro of Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative.
Left-wing and centrist news websites, meanwhile, aren’t generally subsidized by anyone, which is why so many of them are constantly begging for money. There are liberal billionaires — why aren’t more of them willing to put their money where their mouths are?
I subscribe to a couple of print newspapers, including the Pittsburgh East End monthly, appropriately named Print, as well as Munhall’s Valley Mirror. The Christian Science Monitor still considers itself a newspaper, though it only comes out once a week now, in a very nicely designed print publication — really more like a magazine — that I enjoy receiving, mostly for the international coverage.
I have digital subscriptions to the Mon Valley Independent — a Monessen-based startup that also covers McKeesport — as well as the Washington Post.
Among digital-only publications, one of the ones I most enjoy is Defector, which was launched by former employees of Deadspin after a private-equity firm bought its parent company, fired the editor-in-chief, and then told employees they weren’t allowed to write about politics or social issues any more. (“Stick to sports,” they were told. They walked.)
One of the reasons I’m willing to pay for Defector is because it has writers like Alex Pareene, who on Friday wrote a really good exploration of what artificial intelligence (A.I.) can, and can’t, do:
“One of the funnier conceits of the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike is the producers’ insistence on keeping the door open to having AI involved in the writing process,” he says.
Pareene goes onto explain that artificial intelligence chat-bots, like those that power Bing Chat AI and ChatGPT — are enormously expensive to build, and at best are giant word-sorting machines. They don’t actually write stories or even sentences — they use statistical analysis to predict word orders and assemble them into something that looks like language. “Replacing a screenwriter with AI to ‘save money’ is like cutting out your daily Starbucks but buying a $25,000 La Marzocco espresso machine, if the La Marzocco was also bad at making espresso, but could, with careful human assistance, produce beverages that resemble espresso,” he says.
The only ones being fooled by the potential of chat-bots, Pareene argues, are wealthy private-equity bozos — like the ones who bought Deadspin back in 2019 and promptly chased all of the creative talent away. Those are the people who could most easily be replaced by artificial intelligence, he says. “A computer would do a better job owning the Oakland A’s than it would writing about them,” Pareene writes. “Facebook’s expensive AI models would presumably have an easier time replacing Mark Zuckerberg than they would the African content moderators it currently pays less than $2 per hour.”
I won’t spoil the final paragraph, which is outstanding. Go read it for yourself.
Alas, as good as Defector is, it’s not producing much in the way of original, boots-on-the-ground news reporting that digs up original information. At best, it’s aggregating information from a lot of other sources and synthesizing them into a much more readable form. There is a difference.
Unless you’re a journalism nerd, or you’ve worked in the field, you probably don’t realize just that news reporting in the United States is in such bad shape. But it is. Facebook and Google did much of the damage, by sucking up all of the local advertising money. Private-equity companies are doing the rest in two ways: They buy up the remaining newspapers and strip them for assets, and they fund propaganda websites that masquerade as local news (“pink-slime”) to replace them.
Again, why aren’t liberals paying to pull down paywalls and either produce good-quality free news coverage, or (God save us) fund their own propaganda?
It’s not just that liberals and Democrats don’t know how to play the game as well as big-money conservatives: They’re not even playing the same game.
Support some local journalism. If you’re still lucky enough to have an independent local newspaper like Print or The Valley Mirror or the Mon Valley Independent, buy a subscription. Make a donation to WESA-FM or even (I will modestly suggest) Tube City Online.
If American democracy is knee-deep in feces right now, local journalists are the closest things we have to plumbers.