A major Democratic donor is funding a new media outlet that launched Thursday, aimed at covering state and local races in the Midwest as the latest entrant into the growing partisan-media landscape.
The outfit combines Heartland Signal, a new digital news site that will focus on midterm coverage, and WCPT, an existing progressive talk radio station with a large footprint in Midwestern states. It’s all backed by Fred Eychaner, a Democratic donor based in Chicago, who has given approximately $100 million to Democratic causes over the last two decades, according to federal campaign finance records.
It’s part of a recent trend of explicitly Democratic-backed digital news projects that have popped up in the last several years, as candidates and movements across the political spectrum try to speak directly to supporters, drive viral attention and shape the media ecosystem by creating their own content instead of working through legacy outlets.
Last month, Courier Newsroom, a local news group with a progressive slant, relaunched under a new media company, Good Information Inc., backed by Democratic megadonors Reid Hoffman and George Soros. The Pod Save America hosts, all Obama administration alums, built a podcasting empire during the Trump era, and Crooked Media now employs 70 people. Conservative online media is an equally fast-growing space, with a booming collection of news sites, podcasts and outlets focused on social sharing.
Both parties are working to fill a void left by the hollowing out of the local news industry, which has spawned news deserts across the country, including in critical battleground states. But conservative dominance of talk radio has been a source of long-running frustration for many on the left, which the new outlet is partly addressing. It’s also a reaction to the success of online media startups and personalities that dominate social media platforms.
“Conservatives have been masterful for the last 40 to 50 years of amplifying and saturating markets throughout the country,” said Patti Vasquez, who hosts an hour on weekday evenings on WCPT. “A lot of one side of the story, so this is a move toward a balance.”
WCPT expanded its programming in recent weeks, adding new hosts and featuring interviews with DNC Chair Jaime Harrison and Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler. The radio station, launched in 2005, primarily covers Illinois radio airwaves, but it reaches parts of Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin. It draws more than 400,000 monthly online streams, and it has built an email subscriber base of 200,000, according to figures shared with POLITICO.
Heartland Signal, meanwhile, has brought on eight full-time and freelance staff to produce stories on House, Senate and gubernatorial races in the Midwest ahead of the 2022 elections.
A memo shared with POLITICO says the site plans to tackle topics like how President Joe Biden’s signature Build Back Better legislation would affect local communities and Minnesota GOP gubernatorial candidate Paul Gazelka’s “history of anti-LGBTQ stances.”
The outlet is also building out video tracking capabilities, with plans to draw on thousands of hours of publicly available footage of politicians and repurpose them for social media. Heartland Signal is working with Timothy Burke, a consultant who helped to launch the Courier Newsroom and The Recount, a video-focused news outlet.
Heartland Signal’s advisers acknowledged that the site will have a “perspective,” and “that’s not something we’re hiding,” said Tim Hogan, a Democratic consultant and a senior adviser on the project. “The newsroom is anchored to an established progressive talk radio station in the Midwest, but its shows are grounded in facts, and this is how we catch up to conservatives, who have spent decades building a network of right-leaning outlets across the country.”
Cole Leiter, who served as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s communication director, where he was responsible for crafting positive coverage for House Democrats and pushing negative stories about House Republicans, said that “people are increasingly comfortable with the news they consume coming with a helping of opinion — and simultaneously the vacuum in local media continues to grow. Progressive news organizations have to be ready to fill that space, otherwise Sinclair or Fox will happily fill it for us,” he continued, name-checking two conservative TV media companies.
“Local news is trusted, but local news is dying,” Leiter added.
On social media, Democrats have fallen far behind GOP voices in terms of producing “organic” content, particularly on Facebook — that is, content not spread by paid advertising. Conservative figures like Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino routinely lead the list of most-engaged pages on Facebook. Other conservative sites, like The Daily Caller and The Washington Free Beacon, have also sprung up in the last decade to generate more content from a right-leaning perspective. Metric Media, which owns hundreds of local news-styled outlets, came under scrutiny after a New York Times investigation found that GOP operatives had ordered up specific coverage attacking or promoting candidates.
A surge in partisan media comes as trust in traditional media is at an all-time low. Six in 10 Americans said they have some trust in national news organizations, but the partisan divide is stark. Nearly 80 percent of Democrats said they had “a lot” or “some” trust in the national news, while 35 percent of Republicans felt the same way, according to public polling from Pew Research.
“We’re continuing to see less trust in institutions that are devoted to true-er journalism. Is that a problem? Yes. But if Republicans change the way they communicate to meet that reality and we fail to do the same, we lose the hearts and minds of voters,” said Betsy Hoover, who founded Higher Ground Labs, a progressive incubator for startup efforts geared toward Democratic campaigns and causes.
But it’s not clear whether Heartland Signal and WCPT can grow an audience, and there’s a long list of failed attempts. Chief among them Air America, the progressive talk radio station that was started in 2004 in response to Rush Limbaugh. It lasted six years.
“People have tried this before and it’s an expensive habit,” said a Republican operative who works in conservative media, who was granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “But the tit-for-tat arms race continues.”