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.
One of the websites in the network is Illinois Valley Times.
Nearly every story at the top of the homepage in early September was about Sue Rezin, a Republican state senator. Ms. Rezin said in an interview that she didn’t know why the outlet focused on her so much, but that she didn’t mind all the positive coverage.
As of Oct. 14, one reporter had written 34 of his last 40 stories on the site about Ms. Rezin. When contacted, he said the company would not let him speak to reporters.
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.
Mr. Timpone did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him by email and phone, or through a note left at his home in the Chicago suburbs. Many of his executives did not respond to or declined requests for comment.
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.
The emails showed a salesman for Mr. Timpone’s sites offering a potential client a $ 2,000 package that included running five articles and unlimited news releases. The salesman stressed that reporters would call the shots on some articles, while the client would have a say on others.
Ian Prior, a Republican operative, was behind the articles about Ms. Gideon, the Senate candidate in Maine, as well as articles promoting Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Roy Blunt of Missouri, according to the internal records. Mr. Prior previously worked for the Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee that has spent $ 9.7 million against Ms. Gideon.
Juan David Leal, who has worked in the Mexico office of the Berkeley Research Group, a consulting firm, ordered up articles criticizing the Mexican government’s response to the coronavirus.
And employees at the Illinois Opportunity Project, a conservative advocacy group, requested dozens of articles about specific Republican politicians in Illinois. The group has paid $ 441,000 to Mr. Timpone’s companies, according to the nonprofit’s tax records.
A spokeswoman for Ms. Collins, the Maine senator, said the campaign answers questions “from media outlets of all stripes and persuasions,” including the Maine Beacon, a local-news outlet funded by a liberal group.
Mr. Prior leads a P.R. firm that markets its ability to get coverage in local-news outlets. He said in an email that he pitches stories to a variety of outlets, including Mr. Timpone’s network because it “actually covers local issues.” He did not respond to questions about whether he had paid for the coverage.
The Illinois Opportunity Project did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Leal did not comment for this article.
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.
Ben Ashkar, the chief operating officer of Locality Labs, one of the companies connected to the sites, was the sole executive at the network who spoke on the record for this article. He said he didn’t think people could pay for coverage.
“I hope not,” he said. “How would I know? Honestly I don’t think people are paying.”
Mr. Timpone, who turns 48 this month, got his start in politics by covering it. In the 1990s, he was a news anchor and reporter at Illinois TV stations. Eventually he became the spokesman for the State House’s Republican minority leader.
A personable guy and persuasive salesman, according to people who know him, Mr. Timpone then became focused on replacing the old print guard as a digital-news mogul.
“Big metro papers are like the fly in your house that gets slow and you just catch it with your hand,” he said in a 2015 interview with Dan Proft, a conservative radio talk show host in Chicago.
About a decade ago, Mr. Timpone started Journatic, a service that aimed to automate and outsource reporters’ jobs, selling it to two of the nation’s largest chains, Hearst and Tribune Publishing. He used rudimentary software to turn public data into snippets of news. That content still fills most of his sites. And for the articles written by humans, he simply paid reporters less, even using workers in the Philippines who wrote under fake bylines.
When the radio show “This American Life” revealed his strategy in 2012, Mr. Timpone defended his approach as a way to save local news. “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 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.
After complaints, the Illinois Board of Elections ordered the newspapers to say Mr. Proft’s committee funded them. A small disclaimer in their “About” pages now says the sites are funded, “in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government.” The Illinois sites are virtually the only ones in Mr. Timpone’s network with such a disclosure.
The regulators’ questions didn’t slow Mr. Timpone down. He doubled the size of the Illinois network to 34 sites, and by 2017 was expanding to other states. He also added dozens of sites with focuses beyond politics, including 11 that look like traditional legal-news publications but are funded by a U.S. Chamber of Commerce group.
Then, from June through October last year, the network ballooned further, from roughly 300 sites to nearly 1,300, according to a Times analysis of data collected by the Global Disinformation Index, an internet research group. (The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University tallied a similar number of sites in the network.)
Timpone network websites
Watch the number of sites in the network grow over time.
“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 up to 2.6 million people, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned data tool.
Mr. Timpone’s role in the network is supported by public and internal documents. In emails viewed by The Times, he assigned stories, and editors called him the network’s top executive.
But 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.
Tanner Salyers, a city councilman in Mount Vernon, population 17,000, said that when he emailed Metric Media to ask what its plans were for the town’s only newspaper, Mr. Timpone called back to say that he now owned the Mount Vernon News and that he would rebuild it. Yet since the change in ownership, Mr. Salyers said, the newspaper has cut much of its staff and reduced print circulation to two days a week from six.
“I’m the first person to admit that the Mount Vernon News was not Pulitzer material,” Mr. Salyers said. “But nevertheless, it was local and independent. You could go to the grocery store and bump into the writers.” Now, a reporter based in Atlanta has covered local happenings, he said, and not well. When a water line broke last week, forcing the town’s residents to boil their water, the Mount Vernon News didn’t mention it.
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.
Ms. Underwood, who wrote the Maine Business Daily article, said she, too, had felt duped once the political agenda had become clear.
“You say you’re never going to dance with the devil like that; you just judge people for doing it,” Ms. Underwood said. “And then you’re just in the exact same position.”
In the publishing tool used by reporters and editors at Mr. Timpone’s websites is a list of names with a peculiar title: “Story watchers.” These are Mr. Timpone’s clients.
The Times reviewed the history behind dozens of articles in the publishing tool, revealing more than 80 story watchers. Many have pitched stories with instructions on what reporters should write, whom they should talk to and what they should ask. Over 17 days in July, these clients ordered up around 200 articles, company records show.
Internal documents show how much influence the clients have. “The clients pay us to produce a certain amount of copy each day for their websites,” said one “tool kit” for new writers. “In some cases, the clients will provide their own copy.”
John Tillman, an activist who once led the Illinois Opportunity Project and whose other groups have paid Mr. Timpone’s companies hundreds of thousands of dollars, said in an email that some of the payments to Mr. Timpone were to underwrite his news operation. Mr. Timpone, he said, allows “community leaders and influencers” to “pitch (not ‘order’) story ideas.”
Mr. Ashkar, the Locality Labs executive, said the sites wrote more about Republicans because they, unlike Democrats, talked to the reporters. “It’s like covering a beat, right? You’re a journalist,” he said. “They make relationships with people, and then they’re trusted and then they write stories about them.”
He said he didn’t find the sites’ focus on certain politicians unusual.
“Go look at The New York Times. It’s all about Trump,” Mr. Ashkar said. “How’s that any different?”
Jeanne Ives, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House in Illinois, has had a direct financial relationship with the operation.
Ms. Ives has paid Mr. Timpone’s companies $ 55,000 over the past three years, according to state and federal records. During that time, the Illinois sites have published overwhelmingly positive coverage of her, including running some of her news releases verbatim.
In an interview, she said her payments were to create her website and monitor her Wikipedia page. One $ 14,342 payment included the note “Advertising-newspaper.” Ms. Ives initially could not explain why. She later called back to say Mr. Timpone had bought Facebook ads for her.
Asked if she was paying for positive coverage, she replied: “Oh, no, there’s none of that going on. I assure you. Oh, my gosh, no. Oh, no, not at all.”
Ms. Ives is listed as a “story watcher.” She said she did not know why.
Articles for a Magnate
In March, Monty Bennett, the hotel magnate, faced a crisis. The coronavirus had halted travel, and his company, Ashford, which oversees more than 100 hotels, was facing big losses. So he ordered up a news article.
“I want to push our government to go after China. Why should this murderous regime be let off the hook while we suffer,” said a story pitch attributed to Mr. Bennett on the publishing tool behind Mr. Timpone’s sites.
The pitch resulted in an article that repeated his claims on DC Business Daily, which appears to be a straightforward business and politics news outlet in Washington.
“A national hotel chain executive said he is fed up with the way the United States is dealing with China in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic,” the article began. There was no disclosure that Mr. Bennett had ordered it.
Mr. Bennett, a major donor to President Trump, also used the sites to lobby for a stimulus bill to help his company, according to documents. Mr. Bennett posted a link to one of the articles on Twitter.
Ashford received around $ 70 million in federal loans intended for small businesses, making the publicly traded company the single largest recipient of such loans — and Mr. Bennett the subject of national anger.
In response, P.R. professionals began ordering positive articles about him on Mr. Timpone’s sites, according to records in the publishing system. Eventually, Mr. Bennett returned the federal money.
But he was not done using Mr. Timpone’s sites. Now Mr. Bennett owed money to creditors. One pitch attributed to him in the publishing system instructed a reporter to call one of his creditors and ask, “Why did you say you were going to help, but then don’t help?”
A site called New York Business Daily ran the article, saying the creditor was squeezing the finances of a struggling Manhattan hotel.
What the article didn’t mention: Mr. Bennett owned the hotel and dictated the article.
His spokeswoman said in a statement that Mr. Bennett “has no relationship with the websites.” She added that he had spoken to numerous news outlets “to obtain economic aid for the hotel industry.”
After The Times presented evidence that he directly ordered articles, lawyers representing Mr. Timpone sent The Times a cease and desist letter, demanding that it not publish the information.
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.