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Zombie newspaper sites, including Minneapolis’ Southwest Journal, rise from grave

The Southwest Journal shuttered at the end of 2020, but its digital ghost lives on in a distorted, AI-driven form. It’s happening to other dead newspapers.
Screengrab of the Southwest Journal’s website as of February 2023.
Screengrab of the Southwest Journal’s website as of February 2023.

This story was originally published by Twin Cities Business.

What happens when a newspaper dies? Apparently, in some cases, its digital ghost lives on in mysterious, unrecognizable forms.

Minneapolis neighborhood newspaper the Southwest Journal shuttered at the end of 2020, but its web domain continues to post fresh content under the auspices of a Delaware “SEO company” whose leader lives in Serbia. Though the site still includes a few legacy Journal articles now under fictitious bylines, all of the most recent posts are more or less junk content evidently designed to manipulate search engines. There’s a Feb. 10 article about handling raw chicken. Another article highlights the “10 most popular bitcoin casino games.”

While there is a recent article on creating “a breathtaking rock garden” written from the perspective of someone purportedly living in the East Harriet neighborhood, the site’s content, generally speaking, is no longer in line with the Journal’s longstanding coverage of south Minneapolis neighborhoods.

The “Contact Us” link at the bottom of the site pointed to an email address connected to an entity known as Shantel LLC.

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According to its own website, Shantel LLC is an “SEO company” from Delaware, and, as of Feb. 17, its homepage read, “Let’s make the internet a great again!” The company said it specialized in “writing services, SEO optimization services, and similar SEO-related services.” (Shantel LLC’s website was utterly emptied of content around the time this article published, but archived versions of the site include that same company description.)

Shantel’s apparent CEO and founder is Nebojša Vujinović, a businessman living in Belgrade, Serbia, per his LinkedIn profile. When I reached out to Vujinović via LinkedIn on Feb. 10, he said he had only owned the Journal’s domain for a matter of days. He confirmed that he uses a mix of artificial intelligence and human writers to create new content on the sites he owns. As he puts it: “AI + human correction.”

“It’s the fastest process for us because we have more than 1,300 web sites,” he told me.

Vujinović said his company uses a combination of artificial intelligence tools to create articles: Copymatic, Jasper, and, yes, the much-ballyhooed ChatGPT. Though he confirmed he now owns “a lot” of newspaper sites, he’s made it clear he has no interest in the news business. “We are NOT and we will NOT write any news in the future,” he said. “We are far away from the U.S., and not familiar with U.S. local news.”

The Delaware Division of Corporations confirmed that Shantel LLC is a registered company in that state, although it had changed its name to “Only Bear LLC” on Jan. 9.

The Southwest Journal isn’t the only site under Vujinović’s ownership. Several other former news sites have begun listing a Shantel LLC email address as a primary contact. That includes the Missoula Independent, which was at one time the largest weekly paper in Montana, according to archived versions of the website. News conglomerate and former owner Lee Enterprises shut down the Independent in 2018. Like the Southwest Journal’s website, the Independent now includes a few legacy articles on local politics and culture, but all the articles posted after June 2022 have taken a strange turn. The five most recent posts are simply compilations of the height, weight, net worth, age, and birthdays of various social media personalities.

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Then there’s the domain for the Washington News-Reporter in Washington, Georgia. That site also lists a Shantel LLC email address as a contact, and it is no longer posting content relevant to life in northeast Georgia. Instead, there are posts on the difference between traditional and matcha green tea, a guide to engagement rings, and the future of online gaming in Pennsylvania. For what it’s worth, that paper merged with two other papers in the area and now operates under a new domain altogether. Internet archives confirm that used to belong to the Washington News-Reporter in Georgia.

These developments raise questions about the fate of thousands of defunct newspaper domains, and the advent of increasingly skillful artificial intelligence tools. According to a June 2022 report by The New York Times, at least 2,500 American newspapers have shut down since 2005. What happens when a reputable newspaper’s website is turned into a AI-driven content farm?

“There is no doubt that content is being generated by AI programs of many types and some of it ends up in what used to be a respectable mainstream newspaper’s website,” said Mark Neužil, journalism professor at the University of St. Thomas, in an email. “At the same time, very little can be done about it now, other than educating the public that this is happening and teaching them to be critical consumers of the media. Check it out Dig into it! Verify with a trusted source! That sort of thing.”

Theoretically, there are legal avenues for former newspapers whose content has been republished without their consent, but publishers likely don’t have the financial resources – or the will – to pursue them. Janis Hall and Terry Gahan, former co-publishers of the Southwest Journal, said they were disappointed by their domain’s new direction, but that they were not interested in legal action. “It sucks, man,” Gahan said. “This is just the way the world works now. … We ran our publication for 31 years, and now we’re done. We’re retired. But yet, in this age, there’s all these loose ends out there in the e-world.”

Hall said the two simply stopped paying Network Solutions – the newspaper’s domain registrar – for the site. The Hennepin County Library has scanned and archived all of the Southwest Journal’s content, so it is still available to the public. “We gave them files, so you should be able to find any story you’re looking for through library,” Hall said. “That was part of the reason we let it lapse.”

Mark Anfinson, a local attorney who’s represented various publications on behalf of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, noted the corporate owner of a newspaper would still hold the copyright to its digital content. That’s true even if the publication is no longer being published or actively operating, he said.

But enforcement would hinge on former ownership taking action, which appears unlikely in many of these cases. “I suppose if the entity that published the newspaper is completely gone and out of business, there would be no one to make a fuss about that,” Anfinson said.

The other issue is that there is little legal precedent for this sort of thing. “Unraveling what would be legally proper or improper becomes more difficult because there’s this lack of experience and precedent,” Anfinson said.

Alex Mahadevan, director of the Poynter Institute’s MediaWise digital media literacy initiative, has studied the proliferation of false information on the web and works to educate others on how to spot it. He’s written about the rise of “pink slime” websites, which look a lot like actual local news websites but are designed to chase ad dollars. But he said he hadn’t yet encountered an instance of someone repurposing a legitimate local news site’s former domain. “It’s extremely troubling,” Mahadevan said.

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Vujinović shrugged off concerns about potentially misleading information on his websites. “The U.S. is the birthplace of Fake news,” he said. “We all know that.” And, to his credit, he adjusted the dates on some old Southwest Journal articles when I pointed out they were clearly erroneous.

Plus, his work isn’t entirely uncommon. For years, there’s been an analogous but slightly different practice known as “typosquatting,” in which individuals grab domains that are a close misspelling of legitimate websites. But Anfinson, the newspaper lawyer, said that the “law has caught up” on the practice, generally speaking.

What any of this means for the future of remains unclear. For now, Anfinson points out that it’s just one of the “innumerable issues that technological evolution has created.”