As local news, a pay-for-play network grows in its place

Nearly a decade ago, Mr. Timpon started a service called ‘Journatic’, which aimed to automate and outsource the jobs of correspondents, selling it to two of the nation’s largest chains, Hearst & Tribune Publishing. They used rudimentary software to convert public data into snippets of news. This content still fills most of their sites. And for articles written by humans, they paid at least journalists, using workers in the Philippines, who wrote under fake bylines.

When the radio show “This American Life” Revealed its strategy In 2012, Mr. Timpon defended his approach as a way to save local news. “Nobody is involved in all these small towns,” he said. “I am not saying that we are the solution, but we are definitely on the path to a solution.”

Around 2015, he teamed up with Mr.Proft and started a series of websites and free newspapers focused on suburban and rural areas of Illinois.

The publications looked like specific news outlets that covered their communities. A political action committee controlled by Mr. Proft paid Mr. Timpon’s companies at least $ 646,000 from 2016 to 2018, according to state campaign finance records, money that came primarily from Dick Uhailin, A conservative megadonor And heads the shipping-supply giant Uline.

After complaints, Illinois Board of Elections Ordered the newspapers to say that Mr. Proft’s committee funded them. A small disclaimer in their “About” pages now states that the sites are funded, “partly, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government.” The Illinois sites are actually in Mr. Timpon’s network with such a disclosure.

Regulators’ questions did not slow down Mr. Timpon. It doubled the size of the Illinois network to 34 sites, and by 2017 was expanding to other states. He also added dozens of sites beyond politics, including 11 that look like traditional legal-news publications but are Funded by the US Chamber of Commerce Group.

According to a Times analysis of data collected by the Global Disinformation Index, an Internet research group, from October to June last year, the network grew from about 300 sites to about 1,300. (Tow Center for Digital Center at Columbia University Lengthened the same number of sites in the network.)

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