NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The instructions were clear: Write an article calling out Sara Gideon, a Democrat running for a hotly contested US Senate seat in Maine, as a hypocrite.
Angela Underwood, a freelance reporter in upstate New York, took the US$22 (S$30) assignment over e-mail. She contacted the spokesperson for Senator Susan Collins, the Republican opponent, and wrote an article on his accusations that Gideon was two-faced for criticising 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 Collins' spokesperson but had no comment from Gideon's campaign.
Then Underwood received another e-mail: The "client" who had ordered up the article, her editor said, wanted it to add more detail.
The client, according to e-mails 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 PR 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 capitalise on the decline of local news organisations 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 e-mails and the editing history in the site's publishing software that revealed who requested dozens of articles and how.
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 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 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 organisations do not accept payment for articles; the Federal Trade Commission requires that advertising that looks like articles be clearly labelled as ads.
Most of the sites declare in their "About" pages that they 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 e-mail viewed by the Times.
Other news organisations 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 US$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 Timpone's network assign work to freelancers dotted around the United States and abroad, often paying US$3 to US$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 e0mails showed a salesperson for Timpone's sites offering a potential client a US$2,000 package that included running five articles and unlimited news releases. The salesperson 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 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.
Prior previously worked for the Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee that has spent US$9.7 million against Gideon.
Juan David Leal, who has worked in the Mexico office of the Berkeley Research Group, a consulting firm, ordered up articles criticising 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 US$441,000 to Timpone's companies, according to the nonprofit's tax records.
A spokesperson for 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 Democratic group.
Prior leads a PR 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 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. Leal did not comment for this article.
Some of the most popular articles on 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, Timpone's outlets also publish newspapers and deliver them, unsolicited, to doorsteps.
Ben Ashkar, 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." strong Big Ambitions /strong 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 spokesperson for the state House's Republican minority leader.
A personable guy and persuasive salesperson, according to people who know him, 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, 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, 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 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 Proft paid 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 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 Timpone's network with such a disclosure.
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, Wisconsin, after 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.
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.
He has also said publicly and in a filing with the Federal Election Commission that he runs some of the sites.
But the web of companies behind the network makes it more difficult to track the money behind the sites and even 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.
The Times spoke with 16 reporters who have worked for 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.
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," Underwood said. "And then you're just in the exact same position."
In the publishing tool used by reporters and editors at Timpone's websites is a list of names with a peculiar title: "Story Watchers." These are 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."
Jeanne Ives, a Republican candidate for the US House in Illinois, has had a direct financial relationship with the operation.
Ives has paid Timpone's companies US$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 US$14,342 payment included the note "Advertising-newspaper." Ives initially could not explain why. She later called back to say 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." Ives is listed as a story watcher. She said she did not know why.