Pink slime, also known as ‘lean finely textured beef,’ refers to a kind of processed meat used as a filler added to hamburger. Strange as it sounds, pink slime has also become a phrase to describe trashy journalism that untold millions of Americans are now consuming. And like its ground beef namesake, pink slime journalism is cheaper than the real stuff and definitely not as good for you.
The term pink slime journalism was apparently coined by Chicago freelance journalist Ryan Smith back in 2011 while he was working at a news organization called Journatic where he noticed the site was churning out stories with material copied from LinkedIn, using outsourced reporters from overseas, and sometimes attaching fake bylines. It’s all reported here in this story by Poynter.
“People didn’t think much about the beef they were eating until someone exposed the practice of putting so-called ‘pink slime’ into ground beef,” [Smith] said in an email [to Poynter.] “Once it came out, the food industry moved quickly to change it. I feel like companies like Journatic are providing the public ‘pink slime’ journalism.”
But the ooze Smith witnessed almost a decade ago was just the beginning. Pink slime journalism is blowing up right now. The Columbia Journalism Review recently reported that this “shadowy network” has grown from 450 sites to some 1,200 just this year. (Here are the reported URLs.)
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that RT, (rebranded from Russia Today), a TV and digital platform controlled and funded by the Russian government, has used a site called Mixi.Media to gain access to conservative websites even as Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) have sought to limit RT’s reach and influence.
And of course that latter effort writ large, which is to say Facebook and Twitter mitigating pink slime on their platforms, has proven to be unequivocally unsuccessful and Sisyphean as evidenced by their almost daily, hollow and/or incompetent explanations and apologies. As Claire Wardle, co-founder of First Draft, an organization that fights misinformation online, says: “Saying we found misinformation feels good, but it’s only a band aid.”
That, Claire, is an understatement.
Pink slime journalism is at its core about two things; getting clicks for a quick buck, or furthering a political agenda—often the far-right or foreign state actors, such as the Russians. In many cases these factors are conflated into a foul, bubbling cauldron of propaganda, salaciousness and lies.
But the most important point about pink slime for our purposes, is that it’s all free. There are no paywalls, subscriptions charges or freemium models to navigate, proving one of the oldest maxims of commerce: You get what you pay for. It’s also an example of a new rule of the Internet: When something’s free online, you’re the product. In other words consumers of pink slime can be sure that their personal profiles are being sucked up, packaged and sold.
Living without real news
To take a step back for a minute, it feels right now like we’re living in an age of division: The U.S. versus China, rich versus poor, healthy versus sick. None of these rifts are especially new, only exacerbated in an evolving socio-economic order brought about by technological change and autocrats.
And when it comes to getting news, pink slime speaks to another divide: the informed and the ill-informed. Meaning there is now a bright line between consumers who seek out and pay for news that is backed by real rigor and reporting increasingly behind paywalls, and those who passively receive the pink goo mostly through social media.
Think about the people who pay for the New York Times (NYT) (6.5 million digital subscribers), the Wall Street Journal, (2.2 million), the Washington Post, (2 million), the FT (750,000) etc—and the people who, well, don’t. “Redlining news and information is basically saying lower socioeconomic households won’t have access because they are unwilling or unable to pay for information and therefore relegated to a poor news diet,” says Victor Pickard, professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Democracy without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society “It’s very dangerous for a democratic society.”
Yes it is Victor.
At the local level problems are even more acute. “Pink slime websites in local news load quickly, don’t have ads. That’s partly the reason pink slime websites have taken off,” says Wardle. “There’s definitely a connection between local news deserts and the rise of misinformation. There’s literally nothing there or something there and you have to pay to access it.” Why no ads at pink slime websites? Ask yourself who’s funding them and why.
To follow Wardle’s point though, local newspapers have been for the most part unable to convert even 2% of their potential audience. Here’s some grim recent math from What’s New in Publishing: “Seattle, for instance, has a metro area population of 3.5 million residents, but its main newspaper, The Seattle Times, has a newsroom of 150 journalists. It would need to get 10% of its population — or 350,000 — to pay $60 a year to break even on subscription revenue alone. But here’s the thing: The Seattle Times doesn’t have 350,000 digital subscribers. It has 42,000, meaning it’s only converted just 1.2% of the population it serves.”
I used to think this was all about bad business models and pricing, until I ran the numbers. Sure you can pay a ridiculous amount of money for news these days. Subscribe to the print and digital editions of the Washington Post and you might pay $764.40 per year. The New York Times is $1,040 per year. But if you go digital only, you pay $98 a year for the LA Times, $100 per year for the Washington Post or $180 for the Times—and less for the first year. The Wall Street Journal is priced higher; $234 for year one and $468 after that. (The Seattle Times is $207 per year FYI.)
Now here’s what’s crazy. In 1990, it cost $260 for an annual print subscription to the New York Times, (which was looking for a high-end audience.) The Washington Post was only $119.60 per year. (I remember Warren Buffett telling me that Post owner Don Graham, was well aware that his paper had as much as a 60% penetration in the nation’s capital back then, and was wary of pricing too high.) Even the Wall Street Journal was only $129 per year.
Now, adjust those 1990 rates for inflation and you discover the Times was $517.05, the WSJ is $256.54 and the Post is $237.84 in today’s dollars. So, again adjusted for inflation, the Times today costs $330 less than it did 30 years ago and the Post is $137 less. Only the Journal has higher prices today, and one can certainly argue that with that paper’s business audience, it was significantly underpriced back then.
(No doubt, raising prices in the coming years is top of mind for these publishers, so enjoy today’s rates while you can.)
True I am comparing yesterday’s print editions to today’s digital-only subscriptions, but remember what you get now as well: video, podcasts, mobile apps, alerts, etc. and on any device. All in all, seems like a pretty good deal to me.
And yet these big national papers get only a sliver of the general population as subscribers. Add up the NYTs, WaPo, WSJ and FT and you get less than 12 million and surely there is a good deal of overlap. Compare that to the parallel universe of streaming services; Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Disney+, and Peacock, etc, (which by the way cost about the same.) Netflix (NFLX) alone has over 73 million subs. Sure people like “Orange is the New Black” (with over 105 total million streams) more than Heard on the Street. But there’s something more than just that.
It’s that people have learned to live without real news.
“It happened way before the Internet,” the former owner of a major American newspaper told me. “And after TV had been around for decades. It was a generational thing. People had less time and interest.” The numbers match his narrative. Newspaper circulation peaked in 1984 at 63.3 million. TV evening news broadcast topped out at some 42 million around 1980 and declined precipitously after that—the growth of cable news hasn’t come near making up the gap—though the numbers are back up to some 10 million during COVID-19.
Listen, I don’t want to sound like one of these old guys pining for Cronkite and Johnny Apple—those days are gone forever. People are still informing themselves, it’s just they’re getting news and information in new ways. (Phones!)
And of course the business has gone out of the news business. “The promise of digital ad revenue has not materialized for journalism,” says Jennifer Preston, VP/Journalism at the Knight Foundation and former social media editor at the New York Times. “Digital ad revenue is going to two ZIP codes in California.” (That would be 94043 in Mountain View, for Google, and 94025, in Menlo Park for Facebook.) Those two companies have over a 50% market share of all digital advertising. Plus Craigslist took all the classified ads. “Don’t forget the nationalization of retail and the demise of local stores and that impact,” says the former newspaper owner.
But none of that explains why people like pink slime. Truth be told, I think it’s a matter of people not thinking it matters, as well as the media losing focus.
In some instances, Preston suggests news organizations are not paying attention to their audiences: “[Think about] traditional mainstream news organizations in regards to their relationship with people of color in their communities,” she says. “Have they been serving, have they built trust? I would say that many people in the community and many news leaders would agree that they have not. This moment of national reckoning on racial justice is an opportunity for local news organizations and national news organizations.”
Preston says too that philanthropic models are important a la ProPublica.
And she also calls on Silicon Valley to step up: “I think major tech companies should pay a premium for the production of original reporting and they should promote it on their platforms. I’m talking about really paying for it and promoting it. That requires a change in the algorithm.”
Ah, big tech and their algorithms. I’ll get to them and their role as primary distributors of slimy news in a second. But first a PSA. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that my company, Yahoo, creates some very high-quality content (up to you if you include this particular byline), and looks to aggregate only quality content as well, without a paywall.
Back to the tech companies in the news business which is to say, Facebook, Google (GOOG, GOOGL), Twitter—and to an extent Apple (AAPL). If I had $1,000 for every time these companies announced and then changed programs, policies and partnerships with news organizations I’d be as rich as Jeff Bezos. (Well not quite.)
The point is these companies have made countless overtures and despite what they claim, the bottom line is they don’t really care about news, the news business or how important it is for America. Instead of them constantly cleaning up after their own mess and/or making half-hearted attempts, what if these companies really made it a priority. Google, Facebook and Twitter can’t be considered, or shouldn’t consider themselves, simply cool tech companies anymore right? They’re much bigger than that and need to behave that way.
“Something that would be interesting for a Biden administration to look into might be some sort of tax on big tech companies that could create a pool of money that could pay for journalism,” says Michael Luo, editor and writer at the New Yorker.
Can’t you just hear Mark Zuckerberg? “No Mr. President that wouldn’t be a good idea. Facebook needs the money to innovate.”
That’s what scares us Zuck.
“It’s like we’re swimming in a river of information and a lot of it right now is polluted,” says Luo. “But there are some mountain springs that provide clear, clean drinking water but a lot of it is behind a paywall.” And if I may complete the thought, much of the pollution has a pink slimy consistency and is coming from bad actors and distributed on social media.
Time to clean up the river.
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on October 10, 2020. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.