Rise of the Potemkin Newspapers

How a group of Tennessee political operatives weaponized trust in local papers — and cut a template for 2020.

Not be be confused with The Tennesseean. Or any other local newspaper in Tennessee.

In early March, the fact-checking and reporting website Snopes.com published a story by Alex Kasprak and Bethania Palma exposing how a company registered out of Delaware, Star News Digital Media, Inc., is building a chain of websites designed to resemble local newspapers, but are in fact thinly disguised vehicles for the dissemination of nakedly ideological and partisan content. The story built on an earlier 2018 report in Politico that looked at The Tennessee Star, the flagship site of this just-add-water online “newspaper” company, which is founded and operated by a group of Republican strategists and consultants.

The Tennessee Star — like its sister sites the Ohio Star and the Minnesota Sun — is designed to look like a local newspaper in every way, down to local weather reports and trusty taglines that appear next to the name in search results. As Kasprak and Palma write, “If you were to search for these three ‘newspapers’ in Google, they would each show up described identically as the ‘most reliable’ newspapers in their respective locales, providing ‘unbiased updates on Investigative Reports, Thoughtful Opinion, Sports, Lifestyle.’”

Star News Digital Media, Inc. looks set to expand its influence operation in 2020 and beyond. Multiplying the number of Stars and Suns is not expensive; the content largely consists, not of “news” written by local reporters, but propaganda provided by ideologically charged Koch Brothers-funded institutions such as the Daily Caller News Foundation. It all feeds into what Kasprak and Palma call an “explicit strategy [to] target battleground states with conservative news.”

News-to-Table spoke with Kasprak and Palma about their reporting, Star News Digital Media, and what it all means for the future of an information crisis with no end in sight. The transcript has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

It’s clear that the people behind this operation chose to use the guise of local newspapers because they know people generally trust local papers — or what they think are local papers. Do you think it’s fair to say this new strategy is essentially cannibalizing centuries of trust built up by the work of generations of community journalists? And if so, how is it enabled by the death of print and the rise of social media?

Alex Kasprak: I absolutely believe that these papers are made to appear local due to the trust associated with local news. In my view, tying this phenomenon to the decline of print journalism is a bit harder. Historically speaking, there is no question that there have been print newspapers funded by partisan or political actors who have a fluid understanding of journalistic ethics and who have abused the trust of the public. I think this particular brand of trust for local news is a bit more of a recent phenomenon. People trust their local TV station or newspaper when it comes from their community because it speaks to issues unique to them — and it’s a trust that local journalists worked hard to earn. As more and more local outlets develop a web presence, the trust extended to those outlets seems to carry over to other local-looking reporting, even if it comes from somewhere else.

Tying the rise of “local news” to social media is much easier. Social media allows local news to become national news quite easily. Outside of political issues, I’m thinking of several large-scale panics over teen behavior the past couple of years: things like the “condom challenge” and the “deodorant challenge” had their origins in, or spread as a result of, local news websites. Tapping into that power seems like a no-brainer for someone looking to spread a politically motivated message.

Bethania Palma: It’s hard to overstate the negative impact on the American public resulting from the loss of local newsrooms. As a former reporter for a local newspaper, I can tell you that we spent our days pounding pavement out in the communities we covered, talking to residents and finding out what affected them and how, sitting late into the night at government meetings, requesting public records, gathering information at crime scenes and natural disasters, all to bring reliable, vital information to the public about their community, their public officials and their safety.

This is not what these fake newspapers are doing. As we pointed out in our story, the Minnesota Sun had a sidebar with the weather set for Columbus, Ohio. Maybe that seems like a small thing if you don’t really care about the community you cover. But an accurate forecast can mean the difference between life and death when there is extreme weather afoot. Last year we saw reports that demonstrated how the loss of local newsrooms crippled epidemiologists who rely on these publications to track outbreaks. We also saw reports that the vacuum of scrutiny created by these losses resulted in an increase of government waste of taxpayer dollars.

If your only goal is to manipulate public opinion and election outcomes by pumping out inflammatory stories about your political opponents, you’re not going to send your reporters out to cover an outbreak of West Nile virus, for example. And that means the community is in the dark about the risks of having pools of standing water that attract disease-carrying mosquitoes, and officials tasked with controlling outbreaks are in the dark about a pending threat to public health. You’re not going to request public records to hold public officials accountable if your favored politician is in power. And that could mean people’s tax dollars are going toward wasteful activities instead of being spent on programs and projects that benefit them.

During the course of my employment at Snopes, my observation is that social media has conditioned many to expect the information they consume to confirm their individual biases, because social media rewards media that plays to those biases. It trains audiences to react to things with low information and high emotion, rather than with all the necessary information needed to form an educated opinion about public policy. Poorly informed civic decisions result in negative impacts on people’s real lives, pocket books and overall well-being.

Real community newspapers strive to give readers all the information they need to be informed and responsible citizens in a democracy. For these reasons, manipulating and misleading people by pretending to be a local newspaper is not only morally bankrupt, but dangerous.

The way these sites are able to superficially appear as newspapers in search results is a pretty dramatic example of the limits and dangers of Google algorithms, which let anyone be “most reliable” just by using the term. Is Google really this defenseless on this front in 2019? And are search results a logical point of interception?

Alex Kasprak: Google and other large tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter are certainly not defenseless. Without them, these websites would be hard pressed to extend their message past the few people involved with their creation. I do think search results are one of many logical points of interception, but, as an outsider, I can’t help but imagine that attempting to down-rank specific bad actors in search results would be akin to playing a game of whack-a-mole. This is a monumental problem facing our democracy, in my view, and I don’t think we have a solution for it yet.

Along with trust, the operatives behind Star News Digital Mediaare playing off ignorance. Chances that out of state people don’t know the difference between the Tennessee Star and the Tennessean, and that even many in-state readers will think it’s another newspaper from elsewhere in the state. But there’s nothing illegal about naming a partisan website the Star, or trying to look like a newspaper, as does the Onion, which has fooled national governments. What mechanisms, rules, or approaches do you see arising to confront this new reality? Whose responsibility is it, ultimately, to help people tell the difference?

Alex Kasprak: That’s a great question for which I don’t have a great answer. I fully agree, though, that the [Star News people] are playing off ignorance. Myriad newspapers have the word Star in their name. At one point, Google search results for the [Star News] website “The Minnesota Sun” displayed “MN Star” as its name, as well. The largest Minnesota newspaper is the Star Tribune. It’s not subtle.

You were able to follow the money back to origins that explain what is happening. But most people don’t have the time to do that. What sort of help do you think the search engines or social media sites should be obligated to provide to help the reader understand that what they’re reading is not a legitimate local paper? We’ve seen it get tricky when panels are established to “decide” this kind of thing, as with Facebook’s disastrous first attempt at rating and flagging content.

Alex Kasprak: Right. The most intractable part of this problem is that any effort to rein in bad actors feels like censorship, which is at odds with our Constitution and our democratic ideals. Facebook, I think, was extremely sensitive to that perception, as well as the perception of a liberal bias, and that drove them to make PR decisions in the context of their fact-checking program that limited its efficacy. An old-fashioned solution to the problem might be to fund more investigative efforts to shine light on operations similar to Star News Digital Media. In an ideal world, Facebook and other tech companies that profit off journalism could play a great role in giving back to that community by funding such efforts. Perhaps that’s a pipe dream.

Two of the Star, Inc. sites, the Minnesota Sun and the Ohio Star, publish around 40 percent third-party content, much of this from the Daily Caller News Foundation, which receives 80 percent of its funding from Koch Brothers outfits. Do you think that these sites would exist or be part of a growing network without this kind of funding? It also seems like the Kochs have a long game to take advantage of the collapse in local news institutions, as they also fund the Franklin Center, a multimillion-dollar organization that provides statehouse reporting to local newspapers and other media across the country in the interests of “transparency.” Star News Digital Media seems like a logical next step, just bypassing dying newspapers altogether and building fakes.

Alex Kasprak: I think the ability to make sites like those produced by Star News Digital Media would be much more challenging without groups like the Daily Caller News Foundation. As I noted in our story, [one of the architects of Star News’] book Rules for Conservative Radicals makes a specific point of using “free and cheap technologies at every opportunity,” and I think a large part of that “free technology” on the Star websites is content produced by dark money. The brilliant Jane Mayer compared Koch-funded exercises at the state level to an “Ikea for the conservative movement.” My own experience teaches me that it is much easier to build furniture from Ikea than it is from scratch. I think that holds for Star News Digital Media as well. Dark money groups are more than happy to provide that free material at no cost to them, and that is something transparent journalism has trouble competing against.

What most struck you, or surprised you, while reporting this story? Do you think this will get as much attention, or deserve as much attention, as stories regarding Russian bots and trolls in 2020? How would you compare the two?

Alex Kasprak: What struck me most is how this story kept on becoming more complex and fascinating every time we thought we had it nailed down. Originally, we thought this could be a two-day story about the expansion of the Tennessee Star into other battleground states. But the more we dug, the clearer the strategy and its ramifications for a broader discussion of journalism in America became.

I find it really unlikely that this story will be as big as the Russian bots or trolls, but I do think these stories represent two sides of the same information crisis in America.

Production Details
V. 1.0.1
Last edited: March 11, 2019
Author: Alexander Zaitchik
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: The Tennessee Star