At first glance, the story looks like something your aunt might post on her Facebook from her local newspaper. “Midland County judge ‘pardons’ jaywalking puppy,” the headline reads, with a photo of a startled-looking Pomeranian behind a microphone, seemingly on a witness stand. The post details how a Texas judge found a dog underneath his truck in the parking lot of his courthouse and used social media to find the owner.
But the piece isn’t a quirky feel-good story from a local paper. According to data hidden on the site but provided in the site’s social preview cards, the puppy article is written by Mike Aldax, a man who lives more than 1,000 miles away from Midland. The entire site is bankrolled by oil giant Chevron; since 2014, Aldax, who works at San Francisco-based public relations firm Singer Associates, has also written for a Chevron-funded newspaper in California called the Richmond Standard.
The new website, called Permian Proud, is another example in a long history of the oil giant using paid media to disseminate its messaging in crucial geographic areas—this time, in the oil-rich Permian Basin in Texas. And Chevron is rolling out its site in one of the most local news-starved regions of a state that has seen one-third of its newspapers close over the past two decades.
In an email, a Chevron spokesperson said the site, which launched this week, is “aimed at providing regional communities with information that is important to them, specifically focused on highlighting the good work so many people are doing and showcasing why the Permian communities are a great place to live and work.” The website for Permian Proud is very clearly branded as an initiative of Chevron’s: its logo includes a “Sponsored by Chevron” footer, and there’s a big Chevron video ad embedded in the lower half of the homepage. Most of the stories promoted on the front page when Earther accessed it on Wednesday were about local happenings and events, like news of successes for a local college’s football program and information on an upcoming Frida Kahlo exhibit at a museum in Midland. Readers are encouraged to submit “local events, fundraisers, initiatives and more” using a form on the site.
However, navigating over to the “Industry” tab makes it clear that the site is also set up to help Chevron disseminate greenwashing information about the company. One article in that tab, seemingly directly lifted from a corporate press release, touts a solar project that will lower the “carbon intensity” of Chevron’s operations in the Permian (a misleading term used by oil and gas companies that allows them to continue to produce more fossil fuel while claiming to be environmentally responsible). Other posts focus on an outside company that awarded Chevron a high rating for “environmental and social performance,” as well as Chevron drilling operations increasing the use of recycled water; these posts blend seamlessly in the site’s sidebar with the local news and sports articles. A footer disclaimer on the website explains that the site is set up to “provide Permian Basin residents with information about what’s going on in the community, and to provide a voice for [Chevron] on civic issues”—leaving room for those cute puppy jaywalking stories to potentially be paired with company language on local politics or events in the future.
While there are no author bylines displayed on the site, the source code for several articles Earther examined as well as data displayed on the articles’ social cards show that they were authored by Aldax, who has long written for Chevron’s Richmond Standard. The town of Richmond is home to a Chevron refinery that has a history of creating environmental problems in Black and brown communities, and the news site was founded less than two years after the refinery exploded in 2012. Like the Permian Proud project, the Richmond Standard homepage is a mix of local news but includes a section called “Chevron Richmond Refinery Speaks,” which posts updates from the company.
“Permian Proud is run and managed by our Mid Continent Business Unit,” the spokesperson said when asked about Aldax’s involvement. “They asked for assistance from Singer Associates given the communications agency’s experience in community news sites.” The spokesperson said that the current site is “a launch edition of the digital paper designed to preview it to Permian Basin residents,” and future iterations of the site “may or may not include bylines.”
The local news landscape in the U.S. is reaching a crisis point, and Texas has seen some of the biggest changes. According to a report from the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism reported on by the Texas Tribune, 27 of Texas’s 274 counties have zero news outlets, while the state has the third-highest number of journalists per capita lost since 2005, ranking just behind California and New Jersey. Of the remaining counties with news outlets, a little more than half have just one source of news. The Permian Basin region is in even worse shape local news-wise than the rest of Texas: according to figures Earther analyzed, almost half of the Texas counties with no news outlets are in the Permian.
In the absence of reliable local media, “people turn to whatever news source is in front of them,” said Maddie Kriger, a consultant for communications group Climate Power. “For a site like this, it seems like Chevron wanted a site where disinformation could be dressed up.”
The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas production in the state, lists 61 counties as part of the greater Permian Basin region. Of those counties, Earther found, at least 13 have no local news sources. That’s more than 20% of counties in the region, double the overall rate for the rest of the state. Of the remaining 48 counties, the overwhelming majority—42—have only one source of news; most of those sources are a weekly paper. The data on local news outlets was collected from the Medill report as well as state-level statistics from UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, which keeps county-level data on U.S. news deserts.
Many of the counties in the Permian region have few residents, which makes their lack of news outlets unsurprising: Loving County, for instance, has a population of just 57, making it the most sparsely populated county in the nation. But the Permian region, which spans thousands of square miles across three states, also has some serious gaps in news coverage—especially in Texas. Val Verde County, which is home to a smaller sub-basin of the Permian and where Chevron has hundreds of oil and gas leases, has more than 47,000 residents; its daily newspaper, the Del Rio News-Herald, closed in November 2020.
It’s into this news vacuum that Chevron is opening its initiative. A large body of research suggests that the dearth of local news outlets has aided the rise of misinformation, as people search out alternative, less-trustworthy sources for information.
“Social media flattens everything,” said Kriger. “A New York Times story can look exactly like a fake Chevron news site story on a platform like Facebook. There’s fewer signals for legitimacy, even if people were looking for them.”
Chevron has launched several media-focused initiatives in recent months as it appears to be expanding on this paid media strategy. In January, the company posted job advertisements for “journalists” to help build out a “newsroom.” (“The corporate newsroom you’re referring to is, as we said in January, set up to proactively tell the story of Chevron,” a Chevron spokesperson said in an email when asked if the Permian Proud initiative was part of this hiring process, directing us to a corporate press site.) In the spring, the company rolled out a partnership with Houston Public Media on how “the energy sector is working towards a lower carbon future,” filled with oil company buzzwords; the NPR station later retracted the series.