209 Times, Stockton, and The Future Of Local News : Invisibilia Is 209 Times helping or hurting the community it claims to serve? What does the site mean for the future of local news in America? And what can be done about it? In the final installment of "The Chaos Machine" series , Yowei finds herself in the middle of a long-standing tug of war over who owns the truth.

The Chaos Machine: A Looping Revolt

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KIA MIAKKA NATISSE, BYLINE: Hello? Who's listening to this show? We need to know. Go to npr.org/springsurvey, and let us know who you are. The survey is anonymous, but it does help us understand who's listening and why and most importantly, what you think we could do differently. Again, that's npr.org/springsurvey.

This episode is explicit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOWEI SHAW, HOST:

From NPR, this is INVISIBILIA. I'm Yowei Shaw. Welcome to the final installment of our series The Chaos Machine. If you're tuning in just now, you're in the wrong room. Please go listen to the first two parts.

I told you at the beginning that part of the reason I'm going so deep into one story about misinformation is because the story doesn't fit neatly into the box of misinformation we all know. From talking to experts, they haven't heard of anything quite like 209 Times yet, though we just got a listener tip about something similar possibly happening in their town. What's undeniable, though, is the conditions do exist for 209 Times in other places. Local news is vanishing across the country, if you haven't heard, creating a void that can be filled by anyone for any agenda.

So is the agenda of 209 Times what they say it is? There's a photo I found on the website recently, a portrait of Motec Sanchez, the founder of 209 Times, the man behind all the chaos. He's wearing an expensive-looking suit, hair slicked back, gold watch. He's sitting leaned back in a leather chair with one leg crossed over the other, in one hand a cigar, in the other a snifter of whiskey. Motec looks straight into the camera, projecting power, control, satisfaction, like he wants you to know he's the boss, one you don't want to F with.

MOTECUZOMA SANCHEZ: Almost every single enemy that has stood up, they're gone. Michael Tubbs is just the latest one.

SHAW: Michael Tubbs is no longer mayor of Stockton, Calif. He's now serving as an economic adviser to Governor Gavin Newsom. And Motec's no longer the outsider banging on the doors of power. You could argue he's now part of the power structure. The new Republican mayor, Kevin Lincoln - who, by the way, never responded to my requests for an interview - just appointed Motec to a city commission. Motec talks about taking down Michael Tubbs and other politicians like notches on his belt. He sees himself as a media mogul. He's a celebrity.

SANCHEZ: A lot more people recognize me. I was at the store the other day. You know, I asked the clerk attendant, like - hey, where do we find the little baskets? And he looks at me like - I could tell he was smiling, and he was happy. And he says, you did it, man. You took them down.

SHAW: But that's not everybody. Other Stocktonians are still wringing their hands and scratching their heads about how this new political force came to be. And some people still believe there's some conspiracy happening, partisan groups paying 209 Times, like Lange Luntao.

LANGE LUNTAO: What if 209 Times were not pay-for-play, we (ph) just had a difference of opinion in politics? It would be a different world, right? Like, it would completely change the dynamics.

SHAW: It just is not possible.

LUNTAO: It's not possible.

SHAW: Lange, if you remember in Part 1, lost his school board seat after getting targeted by 209 Times. Motec told me he listened to that episode and enjoyed hearing Lange cry. He felt like it was karma.

Anyway, I did look into the pay-for-play thing. Well, actually, it was a real team effort, like everything in podcasting. Producer Liza Yeager - bless her heart - compiled as complete a list as she could of politicians who'd gotten positive coverage from 209 Times. And the few people who got back to us...

TOM PATTI: No, not that I know of.

SHAW: ...Denied ever paying 209 Times for political coverage.

CHRISTINA FUGAZI: Never, never. That's not my style.

CARLOS VILLAPUDUA: No, no, no.

SHAW: Producer Andrew Mambo also went through campaign finance docs for everyone on that list - nothing there - just one political ad buy. And then I got my hands on a bank statement that showed that a former mayor of Stockton had given 209 Times some money...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADRIENNE MOORE: Well, out with the incumbent and in with the future.

SHAW: ...Anthony Silva, the Republican mayor that Michael Tubbs beat in 2016. People told me they thought Anthony had something to do with 209 Times. They said, just look at how 209 Times has covered Anthony Silva compared to Michael Tubbs. They've gone way easier on Anthony. They've even defended him, someone who is convicted on a conflict of interest felony and has been arrested for a bunch of bizarre things.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...On charges of possessing a gun and ammunition.

TOM MILLER: ...A strip poker game involving a 16-year-old boy.

SHAW: The charges were later dropped, and he ended up only pleading no contest to providing alcohol to a minor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: So I called Anthony up. And in the first few minutes, things got weird between us. Like, he started by asking if I preferred using the toilet seat down.

ANTHONY SILVA: Do you?

SHAW: Do I use the toilet seat down?

SILVA: (Laughter) I'm teasing you 'cause you're reporter. And you're probably an investigative reporter, so you're used to digging down. So I’m digging down on you.

SHAW: Anyway, Anthony said he has given some money to 209 Times, but just for ads for his businesses, $300 in total. That's it.

SILVA: I know that the opposition, whoever it really is, would like to believe that they can put a bad guy there - right? - try to make me Osama bin Laden or whoever, Saddam Hussein, whatever they want to make me, you know, put me as. And they like to put me on the top of their pyramid, right? And so it's - it's because they're not getting their own way. That's basically it. They're not getting their own way.

SHAW: So yeah, didn't find proof of shadowy forces behind 209 Times. Not saying it doesn't exist, but I didn't find it. After all the conspiracy theories, I don't think Motec and the 209 Times crew are paid operatives. Here's what I think is going on. From the outside, 209 Times can look like a paid operation because they sometimes publish misinformation about politicians that benefits their opponents, and they go after progressives like Michael Tubbs while seeming to let other politicians off the hook. For example, 209 Times reported again and again about a DUI that Michael Tubbs got before he became mayor. But when a conservative politician got a DUI, they only posted about it a few times and included his statement explaining it was caused by his medication. But Motec says what looks like a paid operation, it's really just a matter of situational alliances.

SANCHEZ: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. And so if we're exposing somebody, then the other people who they may have different interests on why they don't like them, they'll start supporting what we're doing. But they're not - that's not coordinated. They're not working with us.

SHAW: Which is maybe how you get BLM Bernie Bro Motec endorsing candidates backed by the police union and working hand in hand with a law and order conservative like 209 Times reporter Frank Gayaldo, a former correctional officer and bounty hunter who worked in Stockton for many years, owns a vineyard, is currently doing philanthropy work in the Philippines and, in his spare time, writes articles for 209 Times.

FRANK GAYALDO: I think the reason why we're able to get along so well is Motec - where we find the common denominator is both of us have an extreme dislike for local government corruption.

SHAW: But I think it's bigger than that. The core 209 crew, I think they're bonded together by one thing - anger at the system...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: ...Like the local newspaper, the local Democratic Party, city government. And they're channeling that rage into taking down whoever they perceive to be the bad guys, whether they deserve it or not. They believe they're activists working on behalf of the people. They see themselves as the older brother who fights off the bullies at the school yard. You can hear the conviction in Frank's voice.

GAYALDO: I don't think people fully understand. We can't be bought. We can't be intimidated. You could put a gun to my head. You'll have to kill me. I'm not going to stop. We believe in what we're doing, and it's for a greater good, and that's it.

SHAW: So if 209 Times says they're serving the community as its local news outlet, are they serving the community?

CANDICE EPES: 209 Times I consider, like, my local news source.

SHAW: A lot of people in Stockton are grateful for 209 Times.

MICHAEL PEREZ: They talk about, like, local corruption, the crimes, the homeless epidemic, things that are very important to me and my family.

SHAW: People told me they were glad to have a news source looking into questionable behavior of elected officials.

JOEL CRUZ: They really started digging into what really happened to the money.

SHAW: A news source that responds to what's happening right now...

CHRIS MENDEZ: ...Get a pulse for what's happening in your area, it's usually in the 209 Times.

SHAW: ...And also to them.

CRUZ: Here's my video, and then they'll write about it.

SHAW: A place they can go to for help...

EPES: And I'm going to ask them, could they share it?

SHAW: ...That will actually answer their messages...

EPES: And they could have said no, but they did.

SHAW: ...And post about GoFundMes, missing dogs, missing people.

EPES: I've seen them help get people home.

SHAW: Even some haters begrudgingly admitted some benefits. Like, elected officials are probably watching their behavior more closely now. But even with all the praise, after months of reporting, I was troubled. 209 Times likes to say they're not real journalists. They're guerrilla journalists. So they don't have to play by professional rules. But the fact is 209 Times is providing local news to a lot of Stocktonians. I talked to several people who said 209 Times is their main source of local news. And while some of the rules of journalism are being debated and challenged right now, the reason we have them at all is to help people feel like they can trust what we're doing. And I found many, many examples of 209 Times tearing up the pages of any journalism ethics handbook. Take transparency, one of the first norms you learn as a reporter. We have evidence that 209 Times has accepted money for publishing a positive story about an organization. And I've seen screenshots of a 209 Times reporter asking a community member to file a complaint about Michael Tubbs, a complaint that community member says she didn't have in the first place, but that 209 Times gave to her to sign and send.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: 209 Times reports a lot on complaints filed against politicians but doesn't always disclose they're the ones filing them.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, we file the complaints. Like, people got to understand, this is a war.

SHAW: Motec also admits they sometimes give candidates they endorse free advertising. And when Motec was running for mayor, 209 Times reported on his campaign, but none of this is ever disclosed in the stories.

But, like, it changes the information that you're presenting if you're also acting in the events. Do you know what I mean?

SANCHEZ: I know what you mean as far as, like, a journalist standpoint. But to us, that's irrelevant for the simple fact - is what we're saying true or not.

SHAW: Even if 209 Times often get stories right, I don't actually think they care about the truth. Like, when I pointed out examples of facts they got wrong in their stories - like how they reported that Michael Tubbs was holding down a full-time job in New York when he was mayor of Stockton, which is not true - Motec didn't seem to care.

Do you know if it was a full-time job? Did you check?

SANCHEZ: As far as, like, the amount of hours, no, we never checked on that.

SHAW: OK.

SANCHEZ: We never checked on that. But the gist of the...

SHAW: I don't even think they care about the consequences of putting out stories that aren't true, like when they posted about a scholarship program being a scam, which led to confusion among students and parents. I talked to a school counselor who couldn't even convince her friends to apply for free money for their kids. I think when it comes to political stories, they've pretty much made up their minds about who's bad. And it seems like they're mostly just trying to prove their conclusions.

Has there ever been a time that you've been wrong about your assessment of what's good for the community and, like, made a call that you regret? Because I'm just thinking, like, as a journalist, you know...

SANCHEZ: No.

SHAW: ...There are, like, so many times that I'm like, oh, I could have done this differently or this better. Like that - you know what I mean? Like, I feel like that's par for the course. Like, who can be perfect?

SANCHEZ: When it comes to exposing politicians, no, we have never been wrong.

SHAW: We have never been wrong. To me, this is probably the biggest red flag about their commitment to the truth. But if I had to choose one journalistic norm that I feel like 209 Times is breaking the most with the biggest consequences, it'd probably be the one about minimizing harm, the idea that journalists should take special care with the power and platform they have not to harm the people they're reporting on, especially people who might be vulnerable, like people with mental health or substance abuse problems or children. And seriously, I need you to know that I talked to many people - Black people, Latinx people, Asian people, queer people - who say they were harmed by 209 Times stories, whether that's publishing unverified stories about people stealing from their job...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They do these tactics where they just associate you enough to muddy you.

SHAW: ...Insinuating falsely that a candidate was involved in the death of a 3-year-old girl...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I actually tried to not look at their website because it was always so negative about me.

SHAW: ...Or let's not forget the post about a politician's shirtless Grindr pics associating him with human trafficking...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: On straight dating apps, there are shirtless pics, too, and it doesn't become news.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: People were messaging me like, you ain't shit. You should go to hell. You know, other people were like, when I see you around, it's bad.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: The first time 209 Times posted, like, straight up lies about me and my family, it really hurt. It was hard. And it was hard mostly because, like, you walk around Stockton that day and everyone's like, oh, I just saw what they wrote about you. Isn't that crazy?

SHAW: ...And all the memes about Michael Tubbs, like the one portraying him as a crack addict.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: That's just not good karma or good energy, so I'm going to make sure I pray for these folks.

SHAW: And then there's what Nicholas Hatten told me. He's the former director of Stockton's Pride Center who's had a long, contentious relationship with Motec.

NICHOLAS HATTEN: I experienced more pain and challenges to my own wellness when it was my friends, my colleagues being attacked than when it was myself.

SHAW: But what really worries Nicholas, he says, what keeps him up at night, is what he thinks could happen in the future.

HATTEN: And the threat is not with what 209 Times is saying. The threat is what mentally unstable person hears that and takes that as a license to take action. And that has always been the fear for me. And so at what time does that kind of game-playing stop and somebody shows up with a gun?

SHAW: And then there's this last story of harm I'm going to tell you, which feels like it could totally have been prevented.

CHRISTOPHER PRADO: I still can't say his name because I have, like, a three year, like, probation period where, like, I can't say his name or mention him or anything. So we kind of treat him like Voldemort, I guess - he whose name shall not be said.

SHAW: This is Christopher Prado. Before he tangled with 209 Times, Christopher was a promising young organizer. He was in the Michael Tubbs circle. They grew up together, and like Michael, he'd come a long way - the first person from a family of Mexican immigrants to go to college. By 2017 though, Michael and Christopher had drifted apart. They weren't talking. But when Christopher saw Motec criticizing his old friend Michael, saying things he felt were anti-Black, he spoke up on Facebook, basically said to Motec, I'm tired of you talking smack about the mayor. And he quoted a rap song - if you hatin', there's a price to pay.

PRADO: Like, when I see, like, you know, anti-Blackness and, like, you know, racist sentiments, like, I just can't not address that.

SHAW: Christopher says he was just trolling, but Motec says he saw a threat in the rap lyric and also believed that Michael and Christopher were working together.

SANCHEZ: This was coordinated, and this was an attempt to try to silence me and to try to intimidate me and 209 Times into silence because people were - we made people uncomfortable.

SHAW: Not surprisingly, things escalated. 209 Times accused Christopher of issuing, quote, "violent threats."

PRADO: It was just so, like - it was so fake and so fraudulent.

SHAW: So Christopher kept pushing back on social media. And 209 Times kept on writing about Christopher on their news platform, including a story accusing him of attempting to assault a woman at a school board meeting. We weren't able to reach the woman, but two eyewitnesses told me she and Christopher had a heated discussion, nothing more. But the optics were not good for Christopher.

PRADO: That had, like, a huge effect on, like, you know, perception by folks that don't know me.

SHAW: Christopher says before getting into it with 209 Times, he was already not in a great mental place. He'd spent a couple of days in jail related to a DUI charge. He was fighting a lot, drinking, doing some drugs. His parents had kicked him out of the house. But he says after the 209 Times stories, he really started spiraling.

PRADO: Like - and just, like, the, like, general fight or flight, like, type of feeling - like, somebody's out to get me. Like, I just have to, like, be on guard, on edge.

SHAW: Whereas Motec - he says he started getting worried that Christopher might come after him. Christopher was posting cryptic things on social media, like a photo of himself on Instagram holding two guns pointed at the camera. Christopher says these weren't real guns. He's really into "The Matrix," and his outfit that day reminded him of Neo. But for Motec, it was downright scary.

SANCHEZ: There was words that were being used that were explicit threats, telling me to fall in line.

SHAW: A few weeks before Christmas, it all comes to a head. Christopher's at the mall walking through Barnes & Noble, when he randomly sees Motec walking by with his girlfriend.

PRADO: So as I see him, I'm like, what's up with you, bro? Like, what's up with all that you were talking about, you know, online?

SANCHEZ: Then he wants to challenge me to a fight.

PRADO: And I was like, I'm not going to fight you in a Barnes & Nobles (ph), bro. There's, like - there's kids here. Like, step outside. So he was like, all right.

SANCHEZ: And to protect my family, I sit there and have to stand my ground. And we start throwing punches at each other.

PRADO: Threw a couple other punches, and I connected.

SANCHEZ: I kick him. We exchanged some punches. I land some punches. He lands a punch.

PRADO: It probably lasted maybe, like, a total of, like, a minute or so.

SANCHEZ: And then the sirens start, you know, and he takes off running.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: After the fight, Motec filed a police report, and Christopher ended up getting charged with a misdemeanor for battery and sentenced to 60 days in jail, which Christopher says changed his life. He lost his professional standing in the social justice community. He lost friends, even relationships with family members. And with a criminal record, Christopher struggled to find good work. It's only recently he's managed to get a decent job - a union gig working the overnight shift at a factory that makes cups for Starbucks. So all that happened to Christopher.

PRADO: I was like, wow. Like, it was just, like, a consensual, one-on-one, straight-up fight.

SHAW: But Motec feels like he's the only victim.

SANCHEZ: I'm the one that had to have scrapes and bruises, and my foot was sore because I'm kicking this guy and - you know what I'm saying? I'm the one that had to live that and experience that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: So what to make of Christopher versus Motec? On the one hand, you could say Christopher didn't have to challenge Motec to a fight. He did punch him, after all. He's no victim. On the other hand, you could argue that Christopher was a vulnerable person with not much power. And instead of minimizing harm to Christopher, 209 Times chose to write a series of stories about him that included some exaggerations and untruths. It's probably a yes-and situation, and it makes me sad for both parties. I can't help but feel like this whole mess could have been avoided if Motec didn't assume that Christopher's initial Facebook post meant he was an enemy who needed to be taken down, if Motec didn't view everything through the lens of war. But Motec is not buying what I'm selling.

SANCHEZ: I can never have no consideration for, no mercy for - like, he knew what he was doing. I had to defend myself.

SHAW: If you talk to Motec long enough, all roads lead back to this they-did-this-to-me feeling. He shared a bunch of ways he's been hurt - a story on an anti-209 Times Facebook page alleging that Motec had dodged child support payments, which was an exaggeration; an email from a state assembly member's office to a prospective employer saying he was a bad dude, even death threats. To Motec, everything he does to his enemies is justified because he feels like they did it to him first. Here's me trying to puzzle through this with Motec and 209 Times reporter Frank Gayaldo.

Do you feel like you all have ever hurt anyone that didn't deserve to be hurt in...

GAYALDO: Nope.

SHAW: ...That way or...

SANCHEZ: No, not at all.

SHAW: OK.

SANCHEZ: Not at all.

SHAW: Do you ever feel like 209 Times has ever gone below the belt?

SANCHEZ: Yeah - on purpose.

GAYALDO: Not all the - yeah. I mean, we're vicious, but to a certain level because it's measured.

SANCHEZ: It was warranted. It's never been a time where it wasn't warranted. It's just frustrating for me because on the outside, it's like - we're the good guys, right? But we're being perceived as, like, the bad guys because of - the people we took down are being manufactured to believe, like, they're the good guys.

SHAW: It makes you wonder, what would happen if you could press rewind on all the hurt?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: It also makes you wonder what it means to have a local news outlet that doesn't mind hurting people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: When we come back, how we ended up with 209 Times and what to do about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: After hours and hours of talking to dozens of Stocktonians, I was having a dueling earworm problem. In one ear, I kept hearing bewilderment about 209 Times.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Like, how do people believe that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: They're not journalists. They're just...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Coming at me with facts.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: They believe what they want to believe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: No, like, objectivity.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: But no one's going to read that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: What surprises me is when so many people believe...

SHAW: And in the other ear, there was a continual loop of frustration at the Stockton Record and government officials like Michael Tubbs for not listening.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Not focused on engaging.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: ...Ignored the pleas of the community.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: We have reached out to the Record, and we already know that they not listening to you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: I was having trouble...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: We already know they going to cut you off the mic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: ...Getting the mainstream media...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: ...Routinely disrespect the people in the community.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: ...Either refusing to cover...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: ...Ignored the pleas of the community.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: What they do cover, they have a slant on it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: Sometimes they didn't even show up.

SHAW: It sounded a bit like what we're all going through right now, not able to agree on the truth.

SOPHIA ROSENFELD: The way truth is structured in any democracy means it's always going to be super contentious.

SHAW: Sophia Rosenfeld is a history professor at UPenn. And a few years ago she wrote a book called "Democracy In Truth: A Short History" to figure out how far our current post-truth pickle goes back. And she found that, in democracies like ours, it's not actually a new phenomenon. There's been a long tug-of-war between different groups over what's true - what she sees as two basic camps that have fundamentally different ways of knowing the truth. On one side, you got, quote, "experts," like scientists, bureaucrats, doctors, journalists.

ROSENFELD: They're people who've had real training, some on the job, often in university settings. And the methods that they've learned are assumed to make them trustworthy in their specialized domain.

SHAW: And on the other side, you got the public - people who rely much more on things like...

ROSENFELD: ...Everyday experience or faith or gut instinct.

SHAW: But Sophia says this chaotic tug-of-war isn't a bad thing. She thinks it's a healthy feedback loop.

ROSENFELD: Truth is supposed to emerge in a democracy in a kind of almost magical way in which some people with something we now call expertise disseminate ideas to the general public, and the general public sort of feeds back ideas to experts and, through voting, through general public conversation, something like a very, very loose consensus about what the world's like, what's wrong with it is going to emerge.

SHAW: The problem, she thinks, is when either camp attempts to hijack the truth without input from the other.

ROSENFELD: And I think there have been long periods in which either elites - meaning these so-called experts - tried to grab too much of the truth and define it on their own terms with very little input from ordinary people.

SHAW: And also periods of rebellion in which the public pushes back against expert methods of knowing the truth.

ROSENFELD: Periods in which ordinary people either spoke truth to power in some way or actually, just as often, tried to, in a sense, hijack truth on behalf of people they considered to be the real people or the true people.

SHAW: Like today in Stockton, where the local newspaper has been decimated and 209 Times has seized the means of truth production in revolt and seems to be winning with lots of Stocktonians flocking to the place they feel heard.

SARAH ALVAREZ: It's not about this site. It's about - what do people need? Who's your target?

SHAW: Sarah Alvarez is the founder of Outlier Media, a Detroit-based service journalism org. And when I told her about 209 Times, she did not seem that fazed by it because she felt like there was a more urgent matter to attend to.

ALVAREZ: We can't focus all of our attention on, like, let's argue about the truth and neglect the needs.

SHAW: Sarah's working in a city that, in a lot of ways, is worse off than Stockton but dealing with similar issues - violent crime, poverty, low educational attainment. And like Motec, Sarah also decided to challenge the mainstream media. It was 2010, she was an intern at Michigan Public Radio, and at news meetings she would hear about somebody called Mary.

ALVAREZ: Why would Mary care? And I didn't know what that meant. I kind of figured that Mary was someone who I had not yet met who had control over stories because I was very new. And I finally asked, like, who is Mary? And I was told, Mary is our listener. She was a composite listener.

SHAW: A middle-aged, well-educated white woman.

ALVAREZ: Just that was enough for me to just be shocked that that was the target news consumer and that stories would be approved or disproved based on an idea of how that composite would respond to said story.

SHAW: The news director confirmed that Mary did exist, but was phased out a while ago, and he's very embarrassed about the whole thing. But for Sarah, the story sums up her larger beef with mainstream media.

ALVAREZ: It's about where your feedback loop is and where you're going to orient your feedback loop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Sarah's talking about the back-and-forth between media organizations and their audience. And she argues that too often we journalists are focused on a certain class, people who advertisers or pledge drives are trying to reach, which means, you know, we're leaving a whole bunch of other folks hanging, specifically lower-income folks who might need information to help them meet day-to-day goals and challenges way more than wealthier people - information like how to get unemployment benefits that are owed to me, how to get the landlord to fix the sewage problem. What if more journalists tried to answer those questions?

ALVAREZ: It sounds reductive, but I don't think that that many people are trying to do that. And so I do wonder how different our communities would look if that's what we were trying to do - very intentionally, if that's what we were trying to do.

SHAW: So Sarah doesn't have a problem with narrative podcasts that satisfy your curiosity about, say, the invisible forces that shape your world. Her thing is just there's not enough news serving basic needs. And she thinks you shouldn't assume what your audience needs. Find out. Build as many feedback loops into your system as possible. So as part of her work, she uses survey data and finds out what information gaps her audience needs filled. And to make sure people get that information - this is wild to me - she texts it to them and follows up to see if they have questions that need more reporting.

ALVAREZ: Before I got on this call I was just answering a text message from someone who couldn't pay their water bill.

SHAW: Outlier Media serves 200,000 Detroiters and texts back and forth, on average, with a few hundred people a week.

ALVAREZ: I mean, that's the other thing. If you are texting somebody and you are giving them information that is not helpful, they're not interested and they will tell you and you will - and it gets right to you? You know what I mean?

SHAW: Like, you'll always have a report card going on. You, like, know exactly what to - yeah, that's really interesting. Yes.

I got to say, I never heard of such a tight feedback loop between journalists and the public. It sounded like it could be a possible solution for the tug-of-war problem between the experts and everybody else. But then Sarah put me in my place. I'm getting the definition of expert wrong.

ALVAREZ: In reality, the community are the experts. They're not just using their gut; they're telling you what is actually happening.

SHAW: When we come back, more Stocktonians seize the means of media production and fight back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: Hey. Before we get back to the story, we've got a favor to ask. For the next season of INVISIBILIA, we're interested in hearing your stories about friendship. Do you have a burning question, a good story that has stuck with you? If you want to talk about it, send us an email or a voice memo to invisibiliamail@npr.org with your story or question, and we might feature it next season. And now back to the story.

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SHAW: If you remember in Part 1, I told you how the concerned folks in Stockton were kind of like a group of unsuspecting friends at a lake house in a horror movie. When I spoke to them, they felt like they'd made a mistake not taking 209 Times more seriously at the beginning. But now they're doing something. For their part, the Record has promised to build a better feedback loop, be more responsive to its readers. And Michael Fitzgerald, the former Record columnist, has been talking to the media, sounding the alarm about what can step in when local papers die.

MICHAEL FITZGERALD: You don't have to have a strong voice or a loud voice if there's no other voice. So you get what you pay for, ladies and gentlemen.

SHAW: There's even a movement afoot to check the power of 209 Times. It's a super long shot, but somebody filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission arguing that 209 Times should be regulated by campaign finance laws, which, if the FPPC agrees, would mean they'd actually have to disclose at least some of their finances.

And I've discovered that there's a whole cottage industry of outlets trying to compete now. There's a hate page, troll accounts, one called 209 Thimes - with a T-H - and the tagline 209 Times but not shitty. They're trying to undermine the credibility of 209 Times by feeding them fake news to show that they don't fact-check, like when they send in a screenshot of a car crash from "Better Call Saul" and 209 Times posted it.

And then there's Stocktonia, a new community news site that's hoping to take the best from 209 Times - user-generated content, crisis journalism, extreme responsiveness - and improve upon it with fact-checking and covering arts and culture as well as government issues, but not with any axes to grind. Last I checked, the page hadn't been updated in a while, so I thought they'd given up already, but apparently that was part of the plan. Here's the founder of Stocktonia, a local historian named Phillip Merlo.

PHILLIP MERLO: I expect that once they realize that we're - we mean business, they are going to put out a hit piece on me.

SHAW: Philip says back in November, they started getting some heat from 209 Times.

MERLO: That Frank Guyaldo guy, like, literally just started publicly interrogating people involved with us on Facebook. It's the funniest conversation because basically he was just trying to pin me as part of some cabal.

SHAW: I know, because I've also had the pleasure of having Frank try to pin me to a conspiracy.

Are you part of a cabal?

MERLO: I am not part of the cabal, no. But long story short, because of that and because of that type of information, I decided to take the project on the extreme DL in December and just bury my head and start getting as much work done as possible so that when we launch, we can completely shock everybody and be, like, head and shoulders above the competition. It's a shock and awe - we're going to wage a shock-and-awe campaign.

SHAW: (Laughter).

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SHAW: So far, none of the new media competitors come within stadium distance of 209 Times' audience. They're actually expanding. They just launched a page in Sacramento. They're already at almost 5,000 followers. So what is going to happen? Maybe Motec and his crew will burn out at some point. It is all volunteer still. Or maybe, if readers are the ones who give 209 Times its power, maybe they could use that power to hold them accountable, give them feedback to do better. But is that really feasible? I don't know. I know I'm supposed to have some big takeaway at the end of this series, but honestly, I'm just really worried about Stockton. Lots of people are. And as 209 Times reporter Frank Gayaldo told me...

GAYALDO: The truth of the matter is, after the story, you don't - you're not from Stockton, you're going to go away.

SHAW: Frank's right. I am going to walk away. But the conditions that allow 209 Times to thrive, they're still there.

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SHAW: I feel like there's this tendency to talk about truth with a capital T, like it's this sparkly idea we're supposed to keep pristine- you know, rub with a wet cloth. But I think that can distract from what's really at stake. Stockton has very real systemic problems - homelessness, crime, poverty, unemployment, low educational attainment. Everybody who lives there knows that. I think this is partly why 209 Times is so popular. All those posts about fires, murders, corruption - they reflect the hardship people really see and feel. And 209 Times is making the establishment squirm, making them answer for these very real problems. And you know what? It probably feels good.

Recently, I came across an article that helped me understand this feeling. The author was saying that the reason why trust in all kinds of institutions has declined, it's simple. We live in a country where the wealth gap has doubled since the 1970s. So why wouldn't people feel like institutions failed them, like the government, the banks, even the media, which, according to the author, was also to blame for rising inequality, for often repeating narratives about, say, deregulation and how it would lead to trickle-down prosperity, which, as we know, didn't happen.

But here's the thing. Even though 209 Times is drawing attention to very real problems in Stockton, several community organizers there told me it's making it harder to solve those problems, that 209 Times has created an aggressive, combative atmosphere that makes it hard to do their work. People told me they're afraid to challenge 209 Times, even do an interview with me on the record because they're worried 209 Times might see them as the enemy and try to ruin their reputation and, by proxy, the work. In a place where systems have failed people so badly, this feels maddeningly counterproductive.

NANCY HUANTE-TZINTZUN: We can't do that work by bashing.

SHAW: This is Nancy Huante-Tzintzun. She teaches ethnic studies at Sacramento State. And among the things she can't stand about 209 Times, she absolutely hates the way they cover the homeless issue, like posting a video of a man dancing around a fire he built outside a Jack in the Box or another video of a woman running out of a restaurant with a pizza.

HUANTE-TZINTZUN: It doesn't create a critical dialogue about the issue itself. It's just creating another opportunity for people to dismiss homeless, to traumatize homeless. Like, these are people with complex lived experiences. And I can only speak for that because my brother was once homeless.

SHAW: Nancy says a while ago, she was working with Motec and some other people on a school issue. And she told me a story that felt symbolic of what was to come. It was 2010. Nancy says they were walking out of a meeting with school administrators that hadn't gone their way. And as they were walking back to their cars, she says Motec did something that disturbed her.

HUANTE-TZINTZUN: He threw trash on the floor. It was, like, a McDonald's cup.

SHAW: Did you ask him just to pick it up?

HUANTE-TZINTZUN: No, definitely. I think we all were like - I forgot who it was exactly. But they were like, you should pick it up.

SHAW: It seems like a tiny thing - somebody littering, big deal. Motec doesn't remember this and says he would never do that. And in the end, Nancy says he did pick up the cup. But to Nancy, that gesture - tossing a paper cup on the ground, it showed a lack of care to the community.

HUANTE-TZINTZUN: And I was just like, I think that's counter to, like, what we're trying to do, making sure that our environment is - like, we're taking care of each other, of our community, and that despite, you know, these structures and the systems that are oppressive to our community - that we're not going to, like, build on that - right? - by trashing our own neighborhoods.

SHAW: It's hard for me to avoid the 209 Times metaphor here, so I won't.

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SHAW: 209 Times says they're there to help, and they are in lots of ways. But if they're trashing the neighborhood and some of the people who live there, is that the kind of help you really want?

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NATISSE: All right. That's our story. Stick around for a preview of next week's episode. And don't forget to do our listener survey, especially if you're a new listener. It's at npr.org/springsurvey, and you can fill it out anonymously. We really want to hear from you about how we can do better. Again, that's npr.org/springsurvey. Thanks a lot.

SHAW: What? Yowei is asking for a boring story? Who is this person?

Next week on INVISIBILIA, something entirely different.

SHAW: Yeah, I mean, I guess does anything dramatic happen?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: No. For instance, it's very dramatic. We have to wash the windows.

NATISSE: No plot twists, no characters with beef, no fistfights...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: What a weak narrative does is it hands your mind back to you.

NATISSE: ...Just a little story that questions storytelling as we know it. Don't miss it.

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NATISSE: To the people of Stockton and everyone who spoke with us, thank you. Thank you. How many times can we say thank you? We are so grateful for everything you shared with us. This episode was produced by a rock star group of producers - Liza Yeager, James Kim, Chris Benderev and Rhaina Cohen, with even more help from David Gutherz, Carolyn McCusker, Justine Yan, Theo Greenly, Emma Peaslee and Ayda Pourasad. Fact-checking by Billy Brennan, Naomi Sharp (ph) and Sarah Knight. A big thank-you to Kelly Prime for help with editing and special thanks to the many experts who helped inform our reporting - Alicia Bell (ph), Bettina Chang (ph), Jade Begay (ph), Alice Dreger (ph), Lynn Itagaki (ph), Laura Hazard Owen (ph), Joseph Uscinski (ph), Michael Schudson (ph), Steven Livingston (ph), David Mindich (ph), Teresa Bejan (ph), Melissa Zimdars (ph), Penny Abernathy (ph), Keith Smith (ph), Jessica Levinson (ph), Priyanjana Bengani (ph) and Brendan Nyhan (ph).

INVISIBILIA is produced by me, Kia Miakka Natisse, Yowei Shaw, Andrew Mambo and Abby Wendle. This episode was mastered by technical director Andy Huether. Our podcast manager is Liana Simstrom. Deborah George is our supervising senior editor. Our supervising senior producer is Nicole Beemsterboer. Neal Carruth and Steve Nelson are our senior directors of programming, and our senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. Additional thanks to Micah Ratner, Gerry Holmes, Luis Trelles, Jenny Schmidt, David Folkenflik, Kyle Pulley (ph), Jessica Hansen, Tia Kemp, and Neena Pathak. Music for this episode provided by Connor Lafitte, Connor Moore of CMoore Sound, Cheer Up Charlie and Blue Dot Sessions. Theme music by Infinity Knives. To see an original illustration for this episode by Qieer Wang, visit npr.org/invisibilia.

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NATISSE: Before we go, here's some relaxing wave sounds sent in by our listener, Yulia (ph).

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NATISSE: This sound comes from Volunteer Park in Vancouver, Canada. And Yulia even sent us a video. There's sunshine, beach rocks, distant voices. Trust me. It's really nice.

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