Get ready for local news — brought to you by the Democrats.
One of the party’s largest Super PACs is finally pulling the trigger on a $100 million plan to help boot Trump from office. But much of the media it’s pumping out won’t look like traditional advertising.
Rather, Priorities USA is planning to flood swing states — many of which have lost their local papers — with stories favorable to the Democratic agenda. Four “news” outlets staffed by Democratic operatives will publish state-specific information across social media in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin. They’ll also boost content by independent sources.
The idea is to convince voters that Trump’s economy isn’t working for them.
“This should be covered by local news, but local news is dying,” Priorities USA Communication Director Josh Schwerin told VICE News. “Our hope is that we can help fill that hole a bit with paid media while also making it easier for the remaining local outlets to report by providing local angles on national policies with specific facts and people to tell their stories.”
The Super PAC expects its digital spending to rival many presidential campaigns as it ramps up in the coming weeks, reaching above $1 million a month. “There is not an end date,” Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil said at a news conference Tuesday. The group will put tens of millions more toward TV commercials and get-out-the-vote efforts as the campaign drags on.
Priorities brought its ads team in-house to respond more quickly to news cycles and push out a greater volume of content across Facebook, Google, and elsewhere. It’ll face off with a Trump re-election effort that has put nearly $13 million into digital ads so far this year, far more than any of its potential rivals.
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Some Democrats in Washington fear that Trump’s media footprint, Fox News, and outright misinformation are filling the void where local media outlets have shuttered. But Priorities and other left-leaning groups are increasingly pushing back.
The super PAC will put media staffers on the ground for the first time this cycle. Two-person teams in four key battleground states will “collect and capture stories from real people” in part to produce “original content for social platforms.”
Schwerin disputed that Priorities' state-specific social accounts are news outlets, adding that any content the group puts money behind will be labeled as an ad. But the upshot of their efforts sound an awful lot like a newsgathering operation in states that happen to have fast-shrinking local media.
Michigan’s population centers of Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Grand Rapids no longer have daily newspapers. In Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette just slashed its delivery schedule to three times a week.
Taken together, Priorities staffers say, it means less coverage of how the trade war with China or skyrocketing health care costs affect individual voters. And the group’s messaging for the next 16 months will revolve around such stories rather than criticisms of Trump himself.
Between 2004 and 2018, an average of 130 newspapers closed annually across the country, according to Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina professor who studies “news deserts.”
That number increased to about 200 last year, with affected areas tending to be “much poorer than average, less educated, and much older,” she said.
While researchers have yet to identify the political impact of news deserts, it stands to reason that voters in such areas are turning more to national outlets and social media as a result.
“With a lack of information, you tend to assign labels to people,” Abernathy said. “It contributes to a polarization of political views.”
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Democrats are playing catch-up on the political “news” front. Sites that sound like local papers like The Maine Examiner, Free Telegraph, and others have turned out to be cheap PR vehicles for GOP politicians.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a Trump ally who’s sued the McClatchy newspaper company over critical coverage, previously launched a site called The California Republican and hosts his own podcast. Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward went so far as to boast of an endorsement last year by an anonymously backed pro-Ward blog called The Arizona Monitor.
A Democratic-aligned media, including ShareBlue and Media Matters For America, has begun to emerge nationally. But such efforts on the left haven’t trickled down to the local level.
Some 2020 campaigns have responded in part by throwing money behind local news coverage in early voting states. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s team has begun boosting work from the likes of the Des Moines Register, Nevada Independent, and New Hampshire Public Radio in Facebook users’ News Feeds.
“Local newspapers know their communities better than anyone, and we want to highlight their work and the important stories that are resonating with this campaign,” Buttigieg spokesman Chris Meagher said in an email to VICE News.
But some Democrats are making an effort to get into the news business itself as well. The progressive digital organization Acronym announced this month that it was investing $1 million over the next two years into a Virginia-focused news site, The Dogwood.
The outlet will have a point of view in its coverage of state and local political issues, meaning it’s not a one-for-one tradeoff with traditional newspapers. But Acronym CEO Tara McGowan told VICE News that journalistic standards will be key to its success.
“We’re looking at places where we feel there is a vacuum there that should be filled,” McGowan said, adding that her organization is eyeing Michigan and Arizona for future investments. “Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is that it’s almost everywhere.”
Cover: President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Greenville, N.C., Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)