We are in the business of putting truthful information in front of consumers, employees, shareholders and communities. As the mainstream media shrinks, note today’s news that The Washington Post will make further headcount reductions next year, we are all confronted by a stark reality. We need to buy audiences with sponsored content, that in some cases is repurposing an article that ran in a small publication to get to the target. That’s why a presentation today at the Yale School of Management CEO Summit by Steve Brill and Gordon Crovitz, co-founders and co-CEOs of NewsGuard, was so alarming.

How about these facts:

  • There are now almost as many fake news local media sites in the U.S. than actual local daily newspapers
  • Among the advertisers who are on these fake sites are Capital One, Whirlpool, Disney, Nike, Con Ed, Uniqlo, and AARP
  • NewsGuard has identified 311 websites pushing Russian propaganda, including items such as this - COVID-19 vaccines make it more likely that you will contract the virus
  • Every year, $2.6 billion in advertising is going to these kinds of sites
  • When alerted to the problem, clients and agencies point fingers at each other. This is what Brill calls the “diffusion of responsibility”

I went to one of these sites, Santa Monica Observer, which claims to be an independent media organization founded in the late 90s. The foulest of the recent stories is about Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was attacked in his home by a man wielding a hammer. Now the Observer files an article that asserts that Mr. Pelosi was attacked by his gay lover after a spat. There was no evidence for this claim, which turned out to be false, yet Elon Musk promptly retweeted the headline, generating a lot of traffic to this misinformation. It is, in short, a right-wing propaganda machine filing stories about the Marxist mayor who allowed legitimate speakers to be shouted down by her acolytes, thwarting democracy.

This reckless spreading of disinformation only highlights the need to resolve the issue of the absence of trusted news and news sources in American cities and towns. The local news industry has been decimated over nearly the past two decades through layoffs and closures. This past June, The New York Times reported that 2,500 newspapers based in the U.S. have closed since 2005. That’s why it is so important for businesses to support local newspapers and organizations looking to breathe life back into the local news industry, such as Axios through its Axios Local initiative. The media outlet now has 24 city-specific newsletters covering cities from Atlanta and Miami to Des Moines and NW Arkansas with six more scheduled to debut in the future.

Edelman has relatively small ad budgets across consumer and B-to-B audiences. We take brand safety seriously and use Integral Ad Science as one partner to protect our clients and to verify our ad buys go to quality outlets. We will also look to engage NewsGuard to see if there are additional guardrails we can implement to further ensure that we are guaranteeing brand safety against supporting misinformation. Brill and Crovitz intend to take this finding on Russian disinformation to CEOs of large companies. PR firms would be smart to drive the change before it bites our clients.

Richard Edelman is CEO.