Brandwashing Right Wing Memes Through Hyperlocal News: The New Fox News of the Blogosphere?

Hyperlocal news blogging as the new sexy source of revenue has gotten some press lately. NBC/Outside.in has launched a hybrid Twitter/Yelp/Blogs/Flickr feed site as part of its NYC portal. The hyperlocal Blog Network Association seeks to fill a gap left by the demise of daily print reporting and that wasn’t ever truly adequately covered by local tv news. AOL bought Patch.com, which started with what sounds like Gov2.0/Journ2.0 leanings as voiced by its Google-employed founder; it’s unclear whether this orientation survived the corporate acquisition.

Apparently, if national ad buys are shrinking for old media and national ad buys on portals/heavily trafficked sites are only slowly gaining ground, the local ad market looks lucrative ($32bn as estimated by KelseyGroup, a new media industry analysis group). Or at least that’s the pitch.

The Washington Post looks at a case study of what happened to their affiliated hyperlocal blog in Loudoun County. Local ad sales weren’t enough to sustain the WaPo’s efforts. Paradoxically, population growth was not paralleled by an increase in media sources for information, but resulted in its opposite–a reduction in news outlets:

Robert DuPree, the School Board chairman who moved to Loudoun more than 25 years ago, said the media’s problems were, for better or worse, a reflection of the county’s growth. “We were at 65,000 residents then, and now we’re at 280,000,” he said. “We lost a radio station, and we lost one of our papers. We used to have a local cable news show. In some respects, we’ve gone backwards.”

The WaPo article includes two very interesting facts that I think are worth contemplating if we’re to understand hyperlocal news blogging as a potentially important extension of the Fourth Estate.

  1. (private) homeowner’s associations have highly-trafficked blogs for residents that make public information of concern to the people who belong to that gated community/private neighborhood.
  2. From the article: “Amy Burns, 40, publisher of the Loudoun Independent, newly purchased by technology magnate and Republican fundraiser Bill Dean, is fighting to get her weekly out of bankruptcy.” [emphasis mine]

So on the one hand we have little quasi-towns in the form of homeowner’s associations who publish their own news. On the other hand, we have various corporations buying into this space, and in fact many of the new media owners are not Fortune 500 moguls but affluent Republican/conservative businesspeople who have some sort of geographic tie to the media they own. Much like Bill Dean, who lives in DC and invests in the Virginia exurban paper mentioned above in Loudoun County, where his company MC Dean is headquartered and many employees live and work. More about Dean and his company here, here (pdf), and here.

This is a big concern to me. Conservatives have been very active in mobilizing on the local level–school boards, city councils, secretary of state seats, elected offices of sheriffs/judges/city attorneys general–the list goes on. I’m convinced that the bi-level schizophrenia that California experiences (Blue in national elections, Red very often in gerrymandered local/state elections and referenda) is often affected by a distinct lack of Democratic Party candidates in those same races. Also lacking, perhaps, is the organizational muscle to sustain these campaigns. (If this is true, shame on us.)

Fox News satisfies all the right-wing’s propaganda needs at the national and international level. But the same can’t be said for the blogosphere. Oh sure, there’s RedState and Drudge Report and FreeRepublic and others. But here’s my thought: clearly the right won’t be happy til they infiltrate all news-oriented hyperlocal blogging everywhere, masking conservative opinions and framing conservative views as “truth” and “reporting” under the guise of “news and information.”

Take, for example, a look at Philip Anschutz‘s purchase of Examiner.com (which absorbed NowPublic.com), a hyperlocal national blogging site. It pays citizen journalist contributors to blog in a variety of fields. It touts access to traditional media sources as a way for bloggers to make a reputation as citizen journalists, offering credibility and/or a media clip for one’s reel, should one have ambitions to tv punditry. In turn, Examiner.com gets user-generated content, traffic, and a sort of “citizen journalism” grassrootsy credibility. For the more partisan practitioners who are “examiners,” they get a bully pulpit with which to blast stories using conservative sources, subject matter, or framing offered in a seemingly non-partisan environment. Many conservative bloggers are labeled exactly that. But many others don’t label themselves, or in self-identifying, they choose “libertarian,” “independent,” or even “non-partisan” (which can still be partisan). Other labels, such as “So-and-so Gun Rights Examiner” belie a certain perspective even though conventional left-right labeling isn’t in the picture.

It’s instructive to look at the tiny link to “The Foundation for a Better Life” at the bottom right corner of the Examiner.com web page. When you click, you’re brought to Values.com, which is an airbrushed, sepia-toned, less abrasive, less hard-edged version of many of the ideas to be found at the Values Voters Summit.

When you’re on FreeRepublic, you know it. The air seethes with partisanship. I appreciate the transparency.

But I don’t appreciate stories about the recent spate of “undercover sting” operations conducted on ACORN by conservative activists armed with video cameras which are then repackaged wholesale and offered as “citizen journalism.” One example may not make a trend, but I wonder if what’s happening here is a sort of ‘brandwashing’: if you Google ‘Acorn’ and ‘Examiner’, you can see the extent to which the story was a mainstay for many individual Examiner.com bloggers (approximately 210,000 pages of results), and how the ‘Examiner’ brand seems to have laundered some of the taint off what would otherwise be a story more naturally suited to extremist fringe sites like WorldNetDaily (approximately 884,000 pages of results when ‘WorldNetDaily’ and ‘Acorn’ are googled).

I lack the quantitative skills to really piece together data on this, but it may be worth both 1) tracking overtly conservative ownership of hyperlocal sites and 2) figuring out how to measure adoption statistics in mainstream media of hard-right stories pushed using seemingly “nonpartisan” means like Examiner.com.

I speculate that moves to domesticate, buff, and otherwise soften extremist hard-right memes will be taking place in earnest over the course of the next 18 months. Maybe Examiner.com plays a role in that civilizing veneer. Some Rovean operative somewhere may be planning out the calendar now: Perhaps after “softening the beach” with a pounding from shrill advance troops, we’ll have a kinder, gentler Tea Party right about February in time for 2010 Congressional races to heat up. But by then we’ll all be so relieved we no longer have the strident political discourse of the fall of 2009 we won’t notice we’ll have been moved, however imperceptibly, by the shocking/upsetting Overton windows of the fall– we’ll be grateful for the relative sanity of spring 2010.

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Updated to add: I think hyperlocal beat reporting is useful and genuinely grassroots. I simply think that partisan bias should be identified up front. I also think it might be worthwhile to cultivate a place for hyperlocal blogging to live so that it becomes part of our information infrastructure.

I think NPR and PBS already cover some of this ground, although not with the kind of on-the-ground detail several dedicated vbloggers/bloggers could. Ideally, funding more of NPR/CPB/PBS to cover the salaries of hyperlocal beat reporters would be a welcome addition to the local, state, and national news we already get from these sources or from corporate media.

Why CPB/NPR/PBS? Because they have an explicit public affairs mission that they pretty much carry out. (I appreciate my local NPR station and at the same I don’t think they’re the end-all, be-all news source.)

They have an infrastructure–from funding to administration to hiring–that already exists. Very often they partner with community colleges, colleges, or universities for facilities. Podcasts, tweets, vlogging, hyperlocal blogging are all areas they could easily move into in partnership with existing political bloggers. Why not scale up the audience by scaling down the tools of production to near-free blogging and other necessary equipment?

Most importantly, why leave hyperlocal blogging to the free market to fulfill? I’ve already indicated that maybe more than a few conservatives are eager to jump into the space to extend the reach of their partisan frames.

Think of the function NPR/PBS/CPB fills as analogous to health insurance reform–it’s the public option that keeps corporate media honest in a bottom-line environment when it makes not-so-good-for you, ratings-driven product.

UPDATED on 10/2/09 to add: It looks like NPR is doing exactly this–hiring local bloggers and citizen journalists in several pilot programs at about a dozen stations around the country. This is exciting–but I don’t think $3m is nearly enough.

The American University Center for Social Media has more on collaborative public media, with reports on a few specific initiatives that have already launched. They also have an excellent white paper, “Public Media 2.0, Dynamic, Engaged Publics” that thoroughly examines the subject and introduces innovative paradigms for understanding the new information economy. See also the Knight Foundation report, “Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.”

I’m hopeful that hyperlocal news gathering can galvanize citizens. Preliminary information seems to indicate that locally well-informed people are also more politically engaged at that level. Take a look at data from Seattle, which shows a neighborhood-by-neighborhood breakdown of hyperlocal news blogs that served each neighborhood and corresponding high participation in local government projects.

One thought on “Brandwashing Right Wing Memes Through Hyperlocal News: The New Fox News of the Blogosphere?

  1. everysandwich on

    If you’re saying you want public funding to support internet blogging, I am not persuaded that’s a reliable route to unbiased “news,” especially given the willingness of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement to enlist the National Endowmment for the Arts to advance administration priorities. That is not to say there isn’t a place for it, just that more truthful, less slanted news may not be the natural result. Secondly, I think when you paint all of Fox as a propaganda outlet you weaken your own position. No doubt the commentary slants no further left than center, but viewers should know how to distinguish the news operation, basically 9-5) from the commentary. The news operation has broken many important stories others chose to ignore for as long as possible. As for the Acorn tapes, I think the failure of traditional media to cover that and to vet Van Jones is typical of the collapse of standards in journalism over the past few years.

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