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Racial Justice and Social Equity

News watchdogs alarmed by proliferation of ‘pink slime’ sites in San Diego and elsewhere

This March 29, 2012, file photo shows the beef product known as pink slime or lean finely textured beef on a tray at the Beef Products Inc. plant in South Sioux City, Neb.
Nati Harnik
This March 29, 2012, file photo shows the beef product known as pink slime or lean finely textured beef on a tray at the Beef Products Inc. plant in South Sioux City, Neb.

At first blush, the websites of San Diego City Wire or East San Diego News might come across as credible local news sources for San Diego County.

Both are organized like conventional newspaper websites, with sections for local government, politics, business, sports, schools and health. And on the “about us” page, they tout their operator Texas-based Metric Media as essentially a savior of local news.

“Metric Media was established to fill the void in community news after years of decline in local reporting by legacy media,” the websites read. “Our approach is to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias.”


But news analysts said the sites in San Diego, and more than a thousand others owned by Metric Media across the country, aren’t filling a void, but are more like partisan news filler. In fact, they’ve been tagged with the moniker “pink slime,” a reference to the controversial beef byproduct.

“A pink slime site is a news outlet that is presenting itself as a traditional, local-focused news publication, free of bias and free of political ties with human journalists on their team,” said McKenzie Sadeghi, editor of AI and foreign influence at NewsGuard, a New York-based nonprofit that acts as a watchdog of news organizations.

A closer look at San Diego City Wire or East San Diego News reveals that a lot is missing behind the façade of a traditional news site. There aren’t any bylines and no way to contact individual reporters or editors. Most of the content comes straight from government offices and elected officials, and some of the headlines use politically charged terms like “illegal aliens” to describe undocumented immigrants.

“These are right-leaning news sites,” Sadeghi said. “Largely, they publish a mix of press releases and county data, as well as very one-sided content that isn't necessarily misinformation or false, but in the sense that it's misleading voters by cherry-picking or providing one side of an issue without being transparent about their political nature.”

NewsGuard rates news outlets. It gives Metric Media‘s network of websites a “nutrition label” of 32 out of 100, compared to 100 out of 100 for The San Diego Union-Tribune and National Public Radio, and 92.5 for KPBS.


‘A Blade Runner era’

Experts said the proliferation of these sites, from the right and a smaller number from the left, comes at a particularly vulnerable time for the news industry and the body politic.

The number of newspapers nationwide has shrunk by about a third since 2005, according to news analysts. And many of the remaining newsrooms are far smaller than they were two decades ago. Consider that the newsroom staff of San Diego’s flagship newspaper, The San Diego Union-Tribune, has gone from more than 400 newsroom staffers in the early 2000s to around 50 today, according to sources close to the paper.

Meanwhile, the so-called pink slime outlets are multiplying to the point where analysts estimate that for every one of the 1,200 daily newspapers left in the United States, there is a pink slime site. There are scores of them in California alone, and they have newsy names, such as West LA Times and Santa Clara Today.

“I fear we're headed toward a dumpster fire,” said Tim Franklin, a senior associate dean and director of the local news initiative at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. “We have a hyper-partisan environment that we're all living in. We have hotly contested elections coming up this fall. And we have growing news deserts at the same time that social media is de-platforming news to a large extent. Pink slime is only going to muddy the situation.”

Another student of the news business with grave concerns is Ken Doctor, a longtime media analyst and founder of the digital news outlet Lookout Santa Cruz, which this month won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Doctor worries that the vacuum of credible news content mixed with the rapid advances of AI are leading the United States into a “Blade Runner era of the news business, given what artificial intelligence can do in the wrong hands.”

“That is part of what is going to make this pink slime problem far worse very quickly,” Doctor said.

Sadeghi said Metric Media uses both “human” reporters and AI, blending traditional stories, like crime, with partisan content that boosts political candidates and ideologies that match the websites’ funders and backers.

The company also employs software to study big sets of data, such as unemployment figures or campaign finance records, and then turns them into a report that’s tailored to specific counties, she said.

”They use algorithms,” Sadeghi said. “So it really lacks that human touch. It's very generic and doesn't have a lot of depth to it."

In April, San Diego City Wire ran stories about the number of local FDA inspections, political committee contributions and how many teachers elsewhere in Southern California pledged to teach critical race theory (CRT), which teaches how institutional racism has shaped U.S. history.

Earlier this month, the site ran a story entitled, “California Republican Leaders Take Action Against Illegal Protests on College Campuses,” presumably about pro-Palestinian demonstrations over the war in Gaza.

But the piece is actually a press release that never mentions what the protests are over. It instead focuses on a proposal by state Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Brian Jones from San Diego, to tie state funding for colleges to school safety and rescind state-funded grants to students who are ”found guilty and suspended for their involvement in illegal acts.”

All stories on the website about county government have a photo of Nora Vargas, chairwoman of the county’s board of supervisors.

The websites have no phone numbers for their leadership, only a single email address. Emails KPBS sent seeking interviews with leadership were returned with the message, “The recipient server did not accept our requests to connect.”

Murky ownership

According to NewsGuard, San Diego City Wire and East San Diego News are part of a network of websites owned by four interconnected companies that include: Metric Media LLC, Franklin Archer, The Madison County Record and Locality Labs LLC.

Research by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University shows the companies are overseen by Chicago businessman and former journalist Brian Timpone.

Timpone did not respond to emails from KPBS requesting an interview.

Sadeghi described an opaque web of financial links to the websites’ ownership. She says they receive significant funding from DonorsTrust, an anonymously run donation network.

DonorsTrust’s website describes its donors as “libertarian-minded” who believe in “limited government, personal responsibility and free enterprise.”

“While Metric Media itself may not pop up a lot in those FEC (Federal Election Commission) records, the people who own Metric Media operate a lot of other LLCs that have received funding from partisan groups or political action committees,” Sadeghi said.

The websites of both San Diego City Wire and East San Diego News state that Metric Media LLC has a licensing agreement to publish with the Missouri-based nonprofit Metric Media Foundation.

KPBS reviewed IRS tax forms for Metric Media Foundation from 2019 to 2022, the most recent year publicly available. In 2022, the foundation reported revenue of $3.57 million and expenses of $3.6 million. From 2019 to 2022, the foundation paid millions of dollars for “publishing” and “distribution” to companies affiliated with Timpone, including Pipeline Media and Advantage Informatics, the forms show.

An uncertain future

Partisan news has a long history in the United States, dating back to the days of the penny press in the early 1800s. Those papers were full of gossip, business bulletins and op-ed pieces that were overtly political.

“In some ways, what's happening now is the pixel version of what happened during the penny press back in the 1830s, there's a low bar to entry,” Franklin said.

He pointed out that the top goal of these websites appears to be for their headlines to go viral on social media. He said owners are likely less concerned about whether people actually visit their web pages.

“In many cases, they are very sophisticated about their use of search engine optimization so that their content does get out into the bloodstream of social media,” Franklin said.

So far, there’s some evidence suggesting that the sites do not attract many visitors. Researchers in a Stanford University study of web-browsing data from the 2020 election found that just 3.7% of Americans were exposed to pink slime. In contrast, their study found 36.4% went to local news websites.

A NewsGuard review of traffic to San Diego City Wire showed zero visits since the November 2022 midterm elections.

“We'll see them go active in election years,” Sadeghi said.

But Franklin said that could change because today’s social media ecosystem is confusing to people who are searching for reliable, accurate information.

“Think about it,” Franklin said “You go into your Facebook feed, for example, and everything just gets meshed together. It all looks alike. It’s all similar. It’s hard to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t, what’s sourced, and what’s been vetted.”

Franklin and others said the time has come for a national media literacy campaign to help people ferret out misinformation and evaluate the agendas of information outlets.

“What I would like to see is mandates in all 50 states so that young people at a very early age can recognize what is legitimate news and what isn't,” he said.