Since 2004 almost 1,800 local newspapers have closed their doors in the U.S. alone. Oddly, though — and despite an economic downturn — it appears that a slew of new local news outlets have emerged online. Unfortunately, one needs to take a good look under the hood before celebrating this trend.
In October 2019, the Lansing State Journal uncovered dozens of websites branded as local news outlets throughout Michigan that posed as local news but instead were outlets for political messaging. Again in 2020, The New York Times reported that the local site, Maine Business Daily, is part of a network of 1,300 questionable websites. They look like local-news outlets, but the stories are directed by political and corporate public relations firms. Algorithms create much of the content on these sites.
While investigative reporting uncovered these sites, little is known about their impact on readers. The Tow Center’s new report, Reader perspectives on local partisan news sites, examines how local news audiences assess and interpret these so-called news sites. In particular, the research explores whether news consumers infer any bias in the reporting of these sites, how they navigate and respond to these pseudo-local news websites, and how this affects consumer trust in news.
The Tow Center recruited 90 participants to assess these local news sites.
- Participants completed an initial survey about their local news consumption habits and needs and assessed their assigned local website.
- They completed a daily diary exercise to detail their experience of using their assigned website and other local news outlets over five consecutive days.
- Participants offered a final reflection about their assigned website, addressing issues such as how, if at all, it improved their understanding of local issues and assessed trustworthiness.
Local site general assessment
Two-thirds of participants recorded an initial negative impression of their assigned website. Reasons for a negative response included the lack of updates and relevant content. The remaining third reported a positive impression, they noted a favorable impression of the sites’ layout and design, lack of paywalls, and mobile responsiveness. Interestingly, only one-third of participants claimed there was conservative bias in their assigned outlet’s editorial coverage.
The most common response from participants throughout the five-day diary exercise was frustration at the lack of new content and the prominence of outdated content on the homepage. Upon repeated visits, they found the content mostly irrelevant to their daily lives and communities and noted it as “odd,” “weird,” and “bizarre.”
Supplied with automated, data-filled stories, these local sites offered few articles with reporter bylines. Most participants found the automated stories to be disconnected from their communities. In addition, respondents reported that the sites were all about politics and little of anything else.
Perceptions of trustworthiness and bias
While most final impressions were negative, the question of these sites’ trustworthiness and potential bias was somewhat mixed. Many participants excused the sites for their low-cost, algorithmically generated output. While most participants rated the outlets as untrustworthy, there was a narrow majority rating the coverage as fair and balanced.
A strong majority did not look for information about site ownership until prompted and said it did not cross their minds to investigate even with an unfamiliar news source. Only a minority of participants investigated the ownership of their assigned site and describing the lack of transparency as “shocking,” “unsettling,” “odd,” and “worrying.”
Despite the industry’s emphasis on fake news and misinformation, some participants accepted these sites at face value, despite the site’s clear lack of objectivity and partisan status. Consumers do not seem to focus on identifying who owns and operates a news source. Unfortunately, their opinions of this sort of site will affect the broader industry as they fail to distinguish between these partisan sites and legitimate news sources. With the 2024 elections approaching, the news media must address consumers about the importance of considering the source of their information and reinforcing the value of trusted, reputable local news brands.