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

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 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 employees within the Philippines who wrote beneath pretend bylines.

When the radio present “This American Life” revealed his strategy in 2012, Mr. Timpone defended his method as a strategy 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.”

Around 2015, he teamed up with Mr. Proft and began a sequence of internet sites and free newspapers centered 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 firms a minimum of $646,000 from 2016 to 2018, in line with 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 just about the one ones in Mr. Timpone’s community with such a disclosure.

The regulators’ questions didn’t gradual 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 websites with focuses past politics, together with 11 that appear to be conventional legal-news publications however are funded by a U.S. Chamber of Commerce group.

Then, from June by means of October final yr, the community ballooned additional, from roughly 300 websites to almost 1,300, in line with a Times evaluation of knowledge collected by the Global Disinformation Index, an web analysis group. (The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University tallied a similar number of sites in the network.)

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