Campaigns and PACs spend billions each election year to run political advertisements on TV, radio, the internet, and to send printed matter to voters’ mailboxes. But these messages might not always be the most effective way to promote their candidates. The sheer volume of political ads can cause people to mentally block them out, and since the ads are sponsored by political groups they are often assumed to have bad, biased information.
One thing campaigns can do to get information out is to give it to reporters and try to get their narratives to appear in articles published by trustworthy news outlets. However, that can be a risky approach because the campaigns can’t control the content, which could come out including information that they would rather not have voters be made aware of. In other cases, campaigns may simply have trouble finding an outlet interested in what they have to offer.
Another option is for them to start their own platforms that appears to be a news outlet but also puts out information designed to promote candidates, which they can pay to show to targeted constituencies on digital ad networks such as Facebook’s. The Democratic Party-aligned digital agency Acronym created a website called Courier Newsroom in 2019 that spent millions of dollars on Facebook to promote articles and videos favorable to Democratic politicians. On the Republican side, the House GOP campaign arm did something similar in 2014 with a network of fake local news domains to run Google ads against Democrats. Now, another faux news outlet has popped up that appears to be doing something similar to boost conservative House Democrats.
The Well News is a website that was launched in 2018 by two founding members who work with a nonprofit called Center Forward that is affiliated with the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative House Democrats. The site describes itself as a “independent, American news organization that strives to help our audience connect the dots in an increasingly complex informational landscape by providing unbiased, well-researched and thought-provoking content on multiple platforms.” But a review of its articles and promoted posts reveals a disproportionate emphasis on promoting the Blue Dogs, blurring the line between news coverage and political advertising.
The Facebook page for Well News typically promotes a handful of posts per month on the site’s ad network, but there is a stark contrast between two types of posts that tend to get boosted. While the majority of the paid posts are articles on the political issues of the day or ads meant to promote the website in general to a larger audience, there is another category of paid posts that feature photos of Blue Dog politicians and blurbs promoting their work in Congress that are generally given much larger promotion budgets.
The Well News’ paid posts featuring Blue Dog members have been backed, on average, by nearly seven times as much money as the page’s other types of ads, according to Sludge’s review of Facebook’s ad archive. Additionally, ad archive data shows that the Blue Dog ads were targeted to voting-age adults in the states that the Blue Dogs represent in Congress, while other types of Well News ads were shown to people throughout the country. The archive does not provide geographic targeting detail beyond the state level, but Facebook does allow advertisers to limit their reach to people in a specified congressional district. Since 2018, the Well News has spent as much as $132,000 on the Blue Dog ads, nearly half of its total Facebook ad spending during that period.
Sludge asked the Well News why the Blue Dog ads have been more heavily boosted than its other ads, but did not receive a response.
The Well News was founded by Cori Kramer, the executive director of Center Forward and a former chief of staff for two former Blue Dog Democratic representatives, and Kristen Hawn, a partner at strategic communications firm Granite Integrated Strategies that signed Center Forward as a client in 2012. Center Forward is a nonprofit that was formerly known as the Blue Dog Research Forum and it is chaired by Blue Dog Coalition co-founder Bud Cramer, who is now a lobbyist. The group has an affiliated super PAC, Center Forward Committee, that is funded by donations from the Blue Dog Coalition’s PAC, including $600,000 it received from Blue Dog PAC in 2020. Center Forward received an additional $300,000 from Blue Dog PAC last year, according to OpenSecrets.
Hawn was previously employed as the communications director of the Blue Dog Coalition. The Blue Dog PAC has been paying Hawn’s firm communications consulting fees since 2014, totaling $116,000. According to Roll Call, Granite trains Blue Dog members on messaging, issues, and interacting with the media.
In some instances, the Well News has boosted content promoting Blue Dog candidates in the days leading up to their elections. For example, the two paid posts displayed below were boosted with a combined $11,000 to $13,000 two weeks before the candidates, Anthony Brindisi and Ben McAdams, faced highly competitive general election contests. Both ads were targeted exclusively to people in the candidates’ states, and possibly just to those in their districts. Both candidates were endorsed and funded by the Blue Dog PAC in their races and both joined the Blue Dog Coalition after winning election and becoming House members.
The FEC defines electioneering communications as “any broadcast, cable or satellite communication that refers to a clearly identified federal candidate, is publicly distributed within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election and is targeted to the relevant electorate.” The rule doesn’t apply to ads that are run on the internet, and news outlets are generally exempted from the requirement.
Campaign finance advocates and social media companies have endorsed reforms such as the Honest Ads Act, now a part of the For the People Act, which would apply the electioneering communications requirements to content promoted on the internet. The bill would exempt paid digital content from news outlets unless those outlets are “owned or controlled by any political party, political committee, or candidate.” Since the Well News is set up as a for-profit entity that is technically independent from political entities, it’s likely that even the Honest Ads Act, if passed, would not require the site to file with the FEC and disclose its donors.
Other Blue Dog Coalition members that Well News has promoted through paid posts include Josh Gottheimer (up to $22,000 in advertising), Lou Correa (up to $15,000), Mikie Sherrill (up to $13,000), and Henry Cuellar (up to $15,000).
Axios recently published a post about Well News with more information about how the site promotes the messages of the corporate lobbying clients of Center Forward’s board members.