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In 2019, Columbia Journalism Review published Pri Bengani’s eye-opening look at a network of ‘pink slime’ local news outlets that distributed algorithmic stories across a wide network of news sites.

Since then, several other algorithmic or AI-generated news sites have been identified:

The phenomena appears to have now reached Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill Insider started publishing in late February 2024. It calls itself a daily newsletter, sent at 6am, that provides “local news and events for Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Carrboro, and the Triangle area.”

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There is no building in Carrboro that looks like this. It’s an AI-generated image.

Articles in Chapel Hill Insider are strangely written. I ran several through an AI content detector called CopyLeaks. All 15 I ran through the AI content detector were flagged as being 100% AI generated. Some appeared to be AI-generated summaries of other real articles taken from Triangle Business Journal, ABC11, CBS17, and the News and Observer. Others appeared to be entirely AI generated. Pictures were either taken from existing news websites, or were AI generated.

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Paragraphs from Chapel Hill Insider appear to be AI-summarized version’s of Chantel Allam’s March 2 story in the News and Observer.

A bylined was listed on some of the newsletters. This is a real person who lives in Chapel Hill and runs a digital marketing agency. On LinkedIn, she describes herself as an “AI consultant.” I reached out to the person listed as the byline over email, twice, for comment. She never responded. I called the number listed on Chapel Hill Insider’s Facebook page. It took me to a digital marketing firm’s phone tree. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t reach a human.

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I next looked at the Facebook ads the site was running. And discovered other “City Insider” sites that were running exactly the same ad, over the same time period.

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Using both the Facebook Ad Library and reverse image searching, it appears as though Chapel Hill Insider is part of a network of at least 11 “local newsletters” that have launched in the past six months, share the same newsletter provider (Beehiiv) and all appear to be constructed in exactly the same way. (They also share a Google Tag Manager ID, but this appears to be Beehiiv’s.) They have names like:

  • South Kingston Insider (Rhode Island)
  • Irvine Insider (California)
  • Bowie Insider (Maryland)
  • Summer South Insider (Nevada)
  • Cary Spotlight (North Carolina)
  • Ormond Local Pulse (Florida)
  • New Tampa Wesley Chapel Local Pulse (Florida)

They all use the same icons in their logos, start off with a picture of the weather, and then summarize the news or press releases, most with AI.

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All of these sites started publishing between September 2023 and March of this year. They all have Facebook pages and many have run similar Facebook ads with the same language. Many of them run referral programs for new subscribers. (Some of those are…weird as well in terms of spelling and incentives.)

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Some of the sites don’t have have bylines, but others do. Using LinkedIn, I looked up the authors listed on the sites that list an author. Each author runs a local digital marketing firm. So this effort could be an elaborate way to acquire lead generations, or acquire clients.

But what doesn’t sit well with me is that these sites are a) not identifying their use of AI when they use AI and b) summarizing actual local journalists’ material (and taking their photos.)

Matt Skibinski, who studies sites like these, noted the following in his Nieman Lab prediction last year: “We project that these sites will outnumber real daily local newspapers in America this coming year. And now, AI companies have built such sites a perfect tool to create their misleading content fast, cheaply, and with astounding precision.”

I haven’t noticed that the content, so far, on Chapel Hill Insider is misleading. It’s mainly summaries of press releases, news articles, or harmless and weirdly-written quizzes and recipes. But it’s not particularly forthcoming either. And the blurring of these lines may confuse people, and does a disservice to the remaining local journalists who serve our community.

If you learn more about this network, please let us know: [email protected]

Melody Kramer is a Peabody-award winning journalist whose work has appeared on NPR and member stations around the country, as well as in publications ranging from National Geographic to Esquire Magazine....