TThe dire state of local journalism in the United States has been well-documented in recent years, as the closure of hundreds of local newspapers has created American “news deserts” where people struggle for information about local politics and events.
It has also created openings for companies and political groups to swoop in and serve up a mix of local news and propaganda, the latest being Chevron, in Texas’ news-starved — and oil-rich — Permian Basin.
The launch of Chevron’s “Permian Proud” page in August was first reported by Gizmodo.
The banner at the top of Permian Proud says the page is “sponsored by Chevron.” But at first glance, the sponsorship seems like a benevolent grant. On Wednesday, Permian Proud’s front page featured stories about an upcoming air show and a storytelling workshop – typical local paper.
But interspersed with news of livestock sales and processions are a number of stories praising Chevron’s performance in the Permian Basin, a vast area covering parts of western Texas and eastern New Mexico where the company operates several oil fields.
“New solar field in Permian Basin to lower Chevron’s carbon intensity” is one. Another headline reads: “Independent analysis gives Chevron highest environmental rating in Permian Basin.”
Gizmodo reported that the content on the site was written by Mike Aldax, who works for a San Francisco-based PR firm. Since 2014, according to Gizmodo, Aldax “has also written for a Chevron-funded newspaper in California called the Richmond Standard”.
Chevron’s Texas offering has echoes of other questionable “local news” sites that have popped up in recent years.
Since 2019, Locality Labs and Metric Media, both run by the same former journalist, have launched hundreds of “news sites” purporting to represent local communities. The sites, which include the Great Lakes Wire and the Illinois Valley Times, masquerade as local news outlets but are actually funded by Republican and conservative groups.
Last November, an investigation by Popular Information found that right-wing operatives had used the sprawling network of fake news sites to target crucial state elections, including the Virginia governor’s race in 2021. As the Virginia election approached, 28 sites, all powered by Metric Media, published. nearly 5,000 articles on critical race theory in schools, an often misrepresented topic that has become a call to arms and to the ballot box among the right wing.
The rise in fake sites coincides with a crisis for local journalism. Since 2005, the United States has lost more than a quarter of its newspapers, according to Northwestern University’s Medill School, and is on track to lose more than a third by 2025.
The closures have created “news deserts” — where people have either limited or no access to reliable local reporting.
“The local news desert situation is an absolute crisis, and it’s getting worse. It’s a crisis for communities, and it’s a crisis for our democracy, I think ultimately,” said Tim Franklin, the John M Mutz Chair in Community News at the Medill School.
“And what’s happening now is you’re seeing opportunists, whether they’re political parties or corporations, in some cases coming in to try to fill that void with their own messaging.”
In an email, Chevron told Gizmodo that Permian Proud is “aimed at providing regional communities with information that is important to them, specifically focused on highlighting the good work so many people are doing and showing why the Permian communities is a great place to live and work”.
However, it is unclear how many readers of the site will be able to tell the difference between local information and Chevron’s PR fluff.
A message on Permian Proud reads: “Our focus will be on news and information that makes us all proud to live here. Permian Proud will highlight and elevate such efforts, not only to its community partners, but to all who wish to get the word out to the public about local events, fundraisers, initiatives and more.”
It’s a message that overlooks the fact that some of Permian Proud’s news content has been pasted, unchanged, from Chevron press releases.
“We’re already in a disinformation, disinformation wildfire in this country. What this is doing is fueling the wildfire of disinformation that’s already infecting our civic debate,” Franklin said. He believes that as newspapers continue closing, more companies or political groups will move into the local news industry.
“In a self-governing democracy, accurate news and information are the oxygen for citizens to make good decisions at the ballot box, or good decisions about how to live their daily lives.
“So I think the implications of this are very serious for our democracy and for the country.”