Despite working for Michigan State University outside Lansing, Mich., Matt Grossmann had never heard of The Lansing Sun until he stumbled across the website on his Facebook news feed earlier this month.
So when he clicked on an advertised article about Michigan’s roads spending that criticized the state’s Democratic governor, he was curious to know whether The Sun was a new outlet serving the state capital’s 118,000 residents and political leaders.
What he discovered instead was a network of nearly 40 websites that appear to be local news outlets from throughout Michigan but offer largely identical articles about taxes, alleged voter fraud and education costs with a distinctly conservative political tone. Websites with names like The Grand Rapids Reporter, The Kalamazoo Times and Waterford Today include little local news beyond gas prices and prewritten releases about library events.
“I don’t know if fake but local-sounding news outlets makes things more credible, but they certainly seem to think so because they’ve gone to the effort to do that,” said Mr. Grossmann, the director of the university’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.
News of the websites and their political and business links was first reported by The Lansing State Journal on Sunday.
At a time when social media has become a key gateway for sharing information, the collection of websites underscores how political messaging can be deftly repackaged to look like the fading local journalism that readers were used to trusting.
Some of the highlighted articles appeared explicitly designed to appeal to conservative readers. The Lansing Sun’s homepage devoted space to Michigan Republicans who were “pushing forward with efforts to support President Donald Trump in the wake of the impeachment inquiry” and a profane chant from Representative Rashida Tlaib at a pro-impeachment rally.
Conservative media companies like Sinclair Broadcast Group have become known for buying up local outlets they rebrand with ideologically aligned content. But Mr. Grossmann noted that the minimal advertising on the Michigan websites — along with their promotional push on Facebook — may signal that profits are not the main goal.