Hilarious and Depressing Video Exposes How Phony Local TV News Has Become

Conan O'Brien shows how America's #1 source of news has been infiltrated by press release garbage.

Local news continues to be the top news source for American households. A study released late last month by Pew finds that three quarters of U.S. adults watch local TV news as opposed to just 38% who watch cable news during a month.

But what if the local news Americans are consuming isn’t trustworthy? What if some newscasts are actually more focused on selling a product than informing the public?

“Ripping and reading”—a nickname for the practice of taking a press release and reading it on air—is a disturbing trend that has disseminated on local newscasts. In December, comedian Conan O’Brien took on the practice in a hilarious segment featuring a spree of local news anchors reading the same words from a press release about Christmas gifts.


What is causing this rise in local news journalists sharing content that is often ripped straight from a press release? In 2011, the press advocacy organization Free Press published a report titled “Outsourcing the News” that documented how consolidation was leading newsrooms to share critical resources and often the exact same content, no matter who the audience. It runs through various case studies where increasing consolidation among news stations is creating identical content.

In one example, Granite Broadcasting and Barrington Broadcasting took on a joint venture in the upstate New York town of Syracuse. Granite’s station WSTM took over production of all local news on Granite’s station, WTVH. WTVH then laid off 40 employees and began airing virtually identical newscasts on both stations despite the fact that Granite no longer has a functioning news staff. The researchers at Free Press note that these consolidations and hollowing out of newsrooms is happening at the same time local television ad revenues are actually increasing, thanks in part to political advertising.

Which gets us to a particularly egregious form of news outsourcing. Ryan Smith worked for a company called Journatic, which offers outsourced journalism for newspapers. Smith came to oppose what he was doing. “I felt like the company I was working for was accelerating the death of the newspaper, luring many members of the industry into their own demise with the promise of short-term savings,” he told Poynter.

He contacted the Chicago Reader to tell the story of how the pre-packaged stories Journatic was doing were undercutting established press outlets. When Journatic learned that the Reader had been contacted, it offered $50 in hush money to employees to keep them from talking to the press. Smith eventually reached out to the radio program "This American Life," which recorded an episode about Journatic's work. Poynter talked to one Journatic employee who explained how it hides its identity, saying that when they are working on a story, they acquire temporary phone numbers with a local area code and say they are working for the newspaper Journatic is contracting with. “We’re basically lying to our sources,” the employee told Poytner.  

The outsourcing of news doesn’t just limit variety and undercut full-time journalists, it has also gotten some papers into trouble. After the Chicago Tribune published a story with plagiarized and fabricated elements, it suspended its use of Journatic (although partially resumed it five months later).

Pre-packaged news, press releases replacing independent reporting, and further consolidation all have the potential to undermine an independent press and the journalistic profession. Whistleblowers like Smith show that some people in the industry are fighting back.

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Zaid Jilani is an AlterNet staff writer. Follow @zaidjilani on Twitter.