“The sites appear as local-news outlets. But many of the stories are directed by political groups and P.R. firms.”

From a New York Times story by Davey Alba and Jack Nicas headlined “As Local News Dies, a Pay-for-Play Network Rises in Its Place”:

The instructions were clear: Write an article calling out Sara Gideon, a Democrat running for a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat in Maine, as a hypocrite.

Angela Underwood, a freelance reporter in upstate New York, took the $22 assignment over email. She contacted the spokesman for Senator Susan Collins, the Republican opponent, and wrote an article on his accusations that Ms. Gideon was two-faced for criticizing shadowy political groups and then accepting their help.

The short article was published on Maine Business Daily, a seemingly run-of-the-mill news website, under the headline “Sen. Collins camp says House Speaker Gideon’s actions are hypocritical.” It extensively quoted Ms. Collins’s spokesman but had no comment from Ms. Gideon’s campaign.

Then Ms. Underwood received another email: The “client” who had ordered up the article, her editor said, wanted it to add more detail.

The client, according to emails and the editing history reviewed by The New York Times, was a Republican operative.

Maine Business Daily is part of a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country. Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found.

The sites appear as ordinary local-news outlets, with names like Des Moines Sun, Ann Arbor Times and Empire State Today. They employ simple layouts and articles about local politics, community happenings and sometimes national issues, much like any local newspaper.

But behind the scenes, many of the stories are directed by political groups and corporate P.R. firms to promote a Republican candidate or a company, or to smear their rivals.

The network is largely overseen by Brian Timpone, a TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur who has sought to capitalize on the decline of local news organizations for nearly two decades. He has built the network with the help of several others, including a Texas brand-management consultant and a conservative Chicago radio personality.

The Times uncovered details about the operation through interviews with more than 30 current and former employees and clients, as well as thousands of internal emails between reporters and editors spanning several years. Employees of the network shared emails and the editing history in the site’s publishing software that revealed who requested dozens of articles and how. . . .

The network is one of a proliferation of partisan local-news sites funded by political groups associated with both parties. Liberal donors have poured millions of dollars into operations like Courier, a network of eight sites that began covering local news in swing states last year. Conservative activists are running similar sites, like the Star News group in Tennessee, Virginia and Minnesota.

But those operations run just several sites each, while Mr. Timpone’s network has more than twice as many sites as the nation’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett. And while political groups have helped finance networks like Courier, investors in news operations typically don’t weigh in on specific articles.

While Mr. Timpone’s sites generally do not post information that is outright false, the operation is rooted in deception, eschewing hallmarks of news reporting like fairness and transparency. Only a few dozen of the sites disclose funding from advocacy groups. Traditional news organizations do not accept payment for articles; the Federal Trade Commission requires that advertising that looks like articles be clearly labeled as ads.

Most of the sites declare in their “About” pages that they to aim “to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias.” But in April, an editor for the network reminded freelancers that “clients want a politically conservative focus on their stories, so avoid writing stories that only focus on a Democrat lawmaker, bill, etc.,” according to an email viewed by The Times.

Other news organizations have raised concerns about the political bent of some of the sites. But the extent of the deceit has been concealed for years with confidentiality contracts for writers and a confusing web of companies that run the papers. Those companies have received at least $1.7 million from Republican political campaigns and conservative groups, according to tax records and campaign-finance reports, the only payments that could be traced in public records.

Editors for Mr. Timpone’s network assign work to freelancers dotted around the United States and abroad, often paying $3 to $36 per job. The assignments typically come with precise instructions on whom to interview and what to write, according to the internal correspondence. In some cases, those instructions are written by the network’s clients, who are sometimes the subjects of the articles. . . .

Some of the most popular articles on Mr. Timpone’s sites get tens of thousands of shares on social media. That is a modest reach in the national conversation. But with the focus on small towns, less readership is needed to make an impact. In some of those towns, Mr. Timpone’s outlets also publish newspapers and deliver them, unsolicited, to doorsteps. . . .

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

The publications looked like typical news outlets that covered their communities. But a political action committee controlled by Mr. Proft paid Mr. Timpone’s companies at least $646,000 from 2016 to 2018, according to state campaign finance records, money that largely came from Dick Uihlein, a conservative megadonor and the head of the shipping-supply giant Uline. . . .

“It’s astounding to see how quickly the sites have popped up across the country in an attempt to fill the news void,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina journalism professor who has calculated that about 2,100 newspapers have folded across the country since 2004, a 25 percent decline.

Some of the new sites have only the automated content, but they have quickly sprung to life when local news has arisen. That happened in August when protests erupted in Kenosha, Wis., after the police shot an unarmed Black man. One of the sites, Kenosha Reporter, published multiple articles about the criminal backgrounds of the man and protesters. One of those articles was shared 22,000 times on Facebook, reaching 2.6 million people, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned data tool. . . .

ut the web of companies behind the network make it more difficult to track the money behind the sites, and even Mr. Timpone’s oversight of them. It is unclear whether that is intentional. Those companies include Metric Media, Locality Labs, Newsinator, Franklin Archer and Interactive Content Services. The exact ownership of the companies is also unclear.

Most of the network’s new sites say they are part of Metric Media. A Texas P.R. consultant named Bradley Cameron says in his online résumé that he is the general manager of Metric Media and is “currently retained by private investors to develop a national media enterprise.” Internal records show that the same editors run Metric Media’s news operations and Mr. Timpone’s other sites. . . .

The Times spoke with 16 reporters who have worked for Mr. Timpone. Many said they overlooked their doubts about the job because the pay was steady and journalism gigs were scarce.

Pat Morris said she had begun writing for the network after being laid off from The Florham Park Eagle in northern New Jersey.

“I wanted to make a living,” she said. “I was tired of banging on doors.” She thought the sites were a “content mill” to sell ads, but she eventually figured out the mission. She quit in July. . . .

Davey Alba is a technology reporter covering disinformation. In 2019, she won a Livingston Award for excellence in international reporting and a Mirror Award for best story on journalism in peril.

Jack Nicas covers technology from San Francisco. Before joining The Times, he spent seven years at The Wall Street Journal covering technology, aviation and national news.

Ben Decker, Jacob Meschke and Jacob Silver contributed reporting. Data analysis was contributed by Kellen Browning, Mariel Wamsley, Emile Robert, Elaine Chen, Ellie Zhu and Lindsey Cook. Susan Beachy, Kitty Bennett and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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