All the factoids fit to publish

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Have you read the latest issue of the Monroe NY News? No? Maybe its name threw you off?

Surprisingly, that online publication covers no events in Monroe, N.Y.—a town that sits some 50 miles from New York City in Orange County—for which it appears to be named. 

Fun fact: the town of Monroe boasts that it is the birthplace of Velveeta. Another fact: The town of Monroe used to be home to Kiryas Joel, a large enclave of the Brooklyn-based Satmar Hassidic sect. But in 2017 Kiryas Joel residents, who had numerous beefs over zoning and other matters with the town of Monroe, voted to split from Monroe to form a new village called Palm Tree. Reports at the time described the divorce as amicable. 

Notwithstanding its name, the Monroe NY News concerns itself with none of that. It instead publishes content much the same as its sister publications, the Rochester Reporter and Finger Lakes Today—mostly consisting of lists of local and national economic and political factoids culled from publicly available government and private databases. The three websites heavily report the cheapest gasoline prices in various area ZIP codes.  

All three purportedly local online publications are affiliates of Metric Media News Service, an organ of the Austin, Texas-based Metric Media Foundation.

According to its website, the Metric Media Foundation “funds a technology platform that customizes publicly available data for local communities” as part of a mission “to inform citizens about the impact of government policies and other influences on their communities.” It supports more than 1,000 publications across the country.  

In an Aug. 4 article the Columbia Journalism Review detailed the growth of the Metric Media network, describing it as a web of “shadowy, politically backed ‘local news websites’ designed to promote partisan talking points and collect user data.” Relying on research she published last year under the aegis of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, author Priyanjana Bengani, a Columbia Journalism School senior research fellow, detailed the Metric Media network’s growth from 450 to some 1,200 publications.

Bengani describes the Metric Media network as an example of so-called “pink slime journalism,” a term coined to describe the product produced under the business model of a company called Journatic LLC. It pioneered outsourced and sometimes offshored local journalism, supplying news stories reported, written and edited by low-paid contract workers who often were based far from the cities whose events they chronicled. Pink slime also can refer to low-cost automated story generation.

Is Columbia Journalism Review’s Bengani’s characterization of Metric Media as producer of Journatic-style pink slime and her critique of the Metric websites as shadowy and politically motivated fair? 

The Metric Media Foundation claims a higher-minded purpose, stating that it seeks to “restore community-based news as the backbone of Democracy, to give citizens a voice on equal footing with government, corporations, and other powerful interests, and to make facts and data the center of every story.”

Bengani sees a hidden partisan slant behind the foundation’s nobly stated aims. 

The “shadowy” network of Metric Media publications’ political talking points has included “articles about voter fraud using data from the Heritage Foundation, negative pieces about elected Democratic representatives, and stories supporting conservative candidates,” she writes.

Perhaps. But however shadowy or partisan the network of not-really-local news sites might be, one might question its ultimate effectiveness. The Metric Media network appears to be a slapdash and somewhat amateurish effort.  

Perusing Metric Media websites for this article, I found the network’s servers to be unreachable in half or more of my attempts. Messages reading “error 503 backend fetch failed” frequently greeted my attempts to access sites themselves and to follow hyperlinks within sites. 

Once accessed, the sites for the most part displayed content that readers might find less than compelling—unless they were eager to learn factoids like the number of homes sold in the United States in June or what the movement of inventories of capital goods was in the same month.

According to Bengani, Metric Media relies on algorithms to produce 90 percent of its publications’ content. The resultant stories, a percentage of which are little more than lists of factoids gleaned from government and private databases, read like very much like something written by an algorithm. Metric Media did not respond to an email request for an interview. The organization does not accept phone inquiries from the media.

As Metric Media Foundation promises, its news network’s outlets center on facts and data. But it’s hard to say what effect facts and data presented without context might have. 

Under the heading of politics, Monroe NY News’ current issue, for example, lists contributors to Rep. Joe Morelle’s reelection campaign. Such stories can offer insight into who is backing candidates and why they might be doing so and for that reason have long been standard election season fare for U.S. newspapers. 

In identical posts, the Monroe NY News’ and the Rochester Reporter’s current editions report that a Bill Carpenter donated $250 to Morelle’s campaign war chest in May. 

Is Carpenter the local Republican official who used to be Pittsford town supervisor, a top official in former GOP Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks’ administration and currently head of the Rochester Genesee Regional Transit Authority? Is the donor perhaps the Bill Carpenter who at one time served as Bausch & Lomb Inc.’s CEO? Or is he simply someone who happens to share the Bill Carpenter moniker?

“Bill Carpenter donated $250 to Joseph D. Morelle during May, according to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Donations can be made to political candidates in various amounts. The FEC regulates these donations, and individual groups, excluding PACs, must disclose donations over $250 per year,” copy accompanying a piece of clip art illustrating the item states. It goes on to direct readers to an equally contextless list of others who donated to Morelle’s campaign in May. 

A click on Carpenter’s name in the Federal Election Commission database reveals that Carpenter identifies himself as an RGRTA executive. 

Learning this, even an inexperienced local reporter might wonder whether Carpenter, as a longtime local GOP luminary and stalwart of the Monroe County Republican party, contributed a like amount or more to Morelle’s Republican challenger, George Mitris, a local bankruptcy attorney. 

An easily accessed search of Mitris’ donors on the FEC website reveals that since he declared his candidacy, Mitris’ campaign coffers have been swelled by only two contributions, neither of which came from Carpenter.

What, if anything, might the Carpenter donation to Morelle—while ignoring his own party’s candidate—say about the Monroe County congressional race?  

It is a question the Metric Media publications appear not to have asked. Did they avoid asking the question out of partisan loyalty or simply didn’t think to program an algorithm to ask it? That Metric Media named a publication focused on Monroe County after a town situated 290.7 miles distant from Monroe County might lead one to conclude that the latter is more likely.

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

  

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