The rise of PR-backed journalism

Conflicts of interst.

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The new media landscape is wild as hell.

Newsrooms across the country have shuttered or reduced their staff dramatically in the past 13 years. Newspaper employment has dropped by roughly 57% since 2008, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, an estimated 300 newspapers have closed altogether, while print newspaper circulation has declined by 5 million, according to a report by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

At the same time, a new breed of journalism has appeared. It is one that is fueled by political organizations and public relations firms — one that operates under an apparent pay-for-play model.

The “public relations industry has been booming,” the Washington Post noted. “PR specialists now outnumber journalists more than 5 to 1, according to 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics data. And the relationship between PR and news has grown hazier.”

Indeed.

Take, for example, the Checks and Balances Project, a small Virginia-based outfit that bills itself as an independent “watchdog blog that blends investigative reporting, legal action and a campaign focus to achieve real results.”

At first blush, the Checks and Balances Project appears to be an independent news outlet. However, a closer look reveals the group is tied closely to a Virginia public relations firm called Tigercomm.

And it’s no exaggeration to say the two organizations have close ties.

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For starters, the Checks and Balances Project claims on its website that it receives “strategic support” from Tigercomm and was co-founded by Tigercomm President Mike Casey. Tigercomm owns the trademark for the Checks and Balances Project. Moreover, itis backed financially by a 501(c)(4) advocacy group called Renew American Prosperity, which likewise has ties to Tigercomm.

Renew American Prosperity paid Tigercomm roughly $1.2 million for “management” services in 20152016, and 2018. In fact, Renew American Prosperity, which has no employees, spends nearly all of its money paying Tigercomm’s management fees.

Further, according to publicly available documents, Tigercomm, the Checks and Balances Project,and Renew American Prosperity all share the same business mailing address.

It’s also worth mentioning here that Tigercomm’s chief financial officer, Gretchen Casey, who is married to Tigercomm's president, is listed on Renew American Prosperity’s 990 tax filings as the “person who possesses the organization's books and records.”

In other words, there doesn’t appear to be any sort of meaningful separation between Tigercomm, the Checks and Balances Project, or even Renew American Prosperity. Indeed, based on a review of their public filings, they’re all one and the same, almost as if the Checks and Balances Project was created to benefit Tigercomm’s business interests and Renew American Prosperity to legitimize the Checks and Balances Project.

If you can believe it, the Checks and Balances Project is not the first of its kind with this type of business arrangement to crop up in recent years. There’s also Metric Media, which oversees some 1,300 websites disguised as genuine news outlets. The group is funded and directed by public relations firms and conservative political groups.

On the other side of the aisle, there’s Courier Newsroom, founded by former CBS News and 60 Minutes staffer Tara McGowan. After the election of former President Donald Trump, McGowan, who has the Obama-era campaign slogan “Yes, we can” tattooed on her left arm, raised an estimated $25 million from liberal donors to launch a series of websites disguised as genuine news sites to promote Democratic talking points. Until April of this year, Courier Newsroom was funded by McGowan’s get-out-the-vote nonprofit organization Acronym.

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