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News / Clark County News

From the Newsroom: Phone books and newspapers

By Craig Brown, Columbian Editor
Published: June 15, 2024, 6:10am

In my job, I think a lot about how most people these days would rather get their news and information online than from a printed newspaper. People talk to me about it, and a look at our circulation figures confirm it. Our digital subscriber base has exceeded our print subscriber base for quite some time, and the gap continues to grow.

A few days ago, I received another example of how print media has withered: a phone book. My thoughts immediately went back 40 years, when the new phone book was a valuable tool for people to look up Navin Johnson’s number. But, like too many newspapers, today’s phone books are a shadow of their former selves.

Traditional phone books offered a comprehensive list of residential, business and government phone numbers. The new book offers “an index of featured businesses in your area.” I looked to see if The Columbian was a “featured business,” and we are not. My guess is that only advertisers are featured.

At 148 pages, the new book is certainly smaller. For reference, I looked around the newsroom and found the December 2010 phone book, which included residential listings. It ran 552 pages, and the pages were larger, too.

One more similarity with newspapers: The new phone book came in the mail. It used to be delivered to my porch.

Partisan ‘news’ sites

Here was an alarming story I read Wednesday on the news site axios.com: The number of partisan-backed “dark money” websites designed to look like impartial news sites now exceeds the number of U.S. daily newspapers.

These sites seem to spring up in election years, and particularly in swing states. They are also referred to as “pink slime” sites, a term that originally was applied to the watery, ground-up trimmings found in slaughterhouses.

Axios reports there are at least 1,265 of these fake news sites around the United States, compared with 1,213 local daily newspapers.

Clark County has at least one of these pink slime sites. I’m not going to print its name, because it doesn’t deserve free publicity.

The site is backed by a company called Metric Media, which, according to Axios, is a network of websites backed by conservative media entrepreneur Brian Timpone. I look at it on occasion, and it looks to me like most of the content is generated using artificial intelligence. The stories are odd — the featured story Wednesday was a portrait of a businessman under a story headlined “Where could drivers find the cheapest gas in cities within Skamania County in week ending June 1?” The story didn’t actually answer the question, but it stated only one gas station in the county sold regular, which to me seems unlikely to be true.

Out of curiosity, I looked at one of Metric Media’s 21 other sites that purports to serve Washington. This one contained a considerable amount of political content, which to me looked slanted or dubiously sourced. One story I looked at claimed Seattle is one of the nation’s “best weed cities.” The story bases its conclusion on information from another website called “Real Estate Witch.”

There are local versions of these kinds of sites, too. In Clark County, political activist David Madore bankrolls a site that mixes verbatim government press releases with right-wing opinions and a smattering of local high school sports.

Of course, not all online news sites have a political ax to grind. The journalism website ProPublica won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service this year, and another local news site, Lookout Santa Cruz, won the Pulitzer for Breaking News Reporting.

Like the telephone directory, news is primarily found online these days. But as consumers, we need to make sure we are getting real reporting and not just the pink slime.