As Local News Dies, a Pay-for-Play Network Rises in Its Place

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A few decade in the past, Mr. Timpone began Journatic, a service that aimed to automate and outsource reporters’ jobs, promoting it to 2 of the nation’s largest chains, Hearst and Tribune Publishing. He used rudimentary software program to show public knowledge into snippets of reports. That content material nonetheless fills most of his websites. And for the articles written by people, he merely paid reporters much less, even utilizing staff within the Philippines who wrote beneath pretend bylines.

When the radio present “This American Life” revealed his strategy in 2012, Mr. Timpone defended his strategy as a option to save native information. “No one covers all these small towns,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re the solution, but we’re certainly on the road to the solution.”

Round 2015, he teamed up with Mr. Proft and began a sequence of internet sites and free newspapers targeted on suburban and rural areas of Illinois.

The publications regarded like typical information retailers that coated their communities. However a political motion committee managed by Mr. Proft paid Mr. Timpone’s firms at the very least $646,000 from 2016 to 2018, in accordance with state marketing campaign finance data, cash that largely got here from Dick Uihlein, a conservative megadonor and the top of the shipping-supply big Uline.

After complaints, the Illinois Board of Elections ordered the newspapers to say Mr. Proft’s committee funded them. A small disclaimer of their “About” pages now says the websites are funded, “in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government.” The Illinois websites are nearly the one ones in Mr. Timpone’s community with such a disclosure.

The regulators’ questions didn’t sluggish Mr. Timpone down. He doubled the dimensions of the Illinois community to 34 websites, and by 2017 was increasing to different states. He additionally added dozens of web sites with focuses past politics, together with 11 that appear like conventional legal-news publications however are funded by a U.S. Chamber of Commerce group.

Then, from June via October final yr, the community ballooned additional, from roughly 300 websites to almost 1,300, in accordance with a Instances evaluation of knowledge collected by the World Disinformation Index, an web analysis group. (The Tow Middle for Digital Journalism at Columbia College tallied a similar number of sites in the network.)

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