Newly uncovered pay-to-play Republican propaganda sites active in Columbus

Andy Downing
A screen shot of South Columbus News, one of more than 50 Ohio-based local news sites owned and operated by Metric Media

A Sunday report in the New York Times went deep on the operations of Metric Media Network. The nationwide media empire currently controls more than 1,300 local news sites that publish right-leaning content, much of it controlled by Republican political operatives, conservative think tanks and public relations executives. (In comparison, Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country and the parent company of Alive, operates fewer than half as many sites.)

More than 50 of these Metric Media sites are located in Ohio, including Columbus-centric sites such as South Columbus News, North Columbus News, NW Franklin News, South Franklin News and Central Ohio Today.

The Columbus sites are essentially interchangeable. Three currently feature the same lead story: "Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine gets 'D' grade for fiscal management," a piece that plays like part of the ongoing right-wing effort to undercut the Republican governor for taking active steps to curtail the spread of the coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic.

The other two sites are headlined by an opinion piece attributed to "the Donald Trump campaign's senior advisor for strategy, Steve Cortes." In the piece, Cortes offers a trio of fear-mongering reasons that city residents should re-elect President Donald Trump, including the threat of "Dangerous Illegal Migrant Crime in Columbus," which references a January ICE press release slamming the Franklin Country Sheriff's office for releasing 29 "criminal aliens." (The same story published in the Cleveland market swapped out the Franklin County prisoner release for a 2016 murder in Painesville.)

The sites all share a blandly similar design aesthetic and are populated with stories that are produced by freelancers making anywhere from $3 to $36 per article, according to the New York Times, in addition to content produced for pay by clients, which is a violation of traditional journalism ethics.

In the feature, Times reporters relayed the story of freelance writer Angela Underwood, who was paid $22 to produce a story critical of Maine Democrat Sara Gideon, who is currently running a highly contested senatorial campaign against incumbent Susan Collins. Underwood's article was posted on Maine Business Daily, after which Underwood received an email from her editor saying that the "client" who had ordered up the article wanted it to include further detail. The client, according to a New York Times review, was Ian Prior, a Republican operative.

These realities run counter to the way that the "local" sites are typically marketed to audiences. "Our approach is to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias," reads the "about" section on all five Columbus-centric sites.

Metric Media, founded by former TV reporter Brian Timpone, is not strictly a digital operation, either, having recently acquired legacy print outlets in some markets, including Ohio. In August, the company purchased the Mount Vernon News, the only newspaper in nearby Mount Vernon, according to the Times, initially pledging to expand upon local content.

The opposite has been true, however. The Times writes:

Read the full article here and continue to keep an eye out for still-local writers Andy and Joel when you're out doing your weekly grocery shopping. Just try not to bump into us.