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

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About a 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 stories. 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 underneath faux bylines.

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

Around 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 seemed like typical information retailers that lined their communities. But a political motion committee managed by Mr. Proft paid Mr. Timpone’s corporations at the least $646,000 from 2016 to 2018, in response to state marketing campaign finance data, cash that largely got here from Dick Uihlein, a conservative megadonor and the top of the shipping-supply large 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 scale 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 seem like conventional legal-news publications however are funded by a U.S. Chamber of Commerce group.

Then, from June by means of October final 12 months, the community ballooned additional, from roughly 300 websites to almost 1,300, in response to a Times evaluation of information collected by the Global Disinformation Index, an web analysis group. (The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University tallied an analogous variety of websites within the community.)

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