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'Pay for coverage' network rises amid US local news void

Angela Underwood, a freelance reporter in upstate New York, took the US$22 assignment over e-mail. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • The instructions were clear: Write an article calling out Ms Sara Gideon, a Democrat running for a hotly contested US Senate seat in Maine, as a hypocrite.

Ms Angela Underwood, a freelance reporter in upstate New York, took the US$22 (S$30) assignment over e-mail. She contacted the spokesman for Senator Susan Collins, the Republican opponent, and wrote the article.

It was published on Maine Business Daily and extensively quoted Ms Collins' spokesman but had no comment from Ms Gideon's campaign.

Then Ms 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 local newspapers that are vanishing across the United States.

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, an investigation by NYTimes has found.

The sites appear as ordinary local news outlets, with names like Des Moines Sun, Ann Arbor Times and Empire State Today. But behind the scenes, many of the stories are directed by political groups and corporate PR firms to promote a Republican candidate or to smear their rivals.

The network is largely overseen by Mr Brian Timpone, a TV reporter turned Internet entrepreneur. He has built the network with the help of several others, including a Texas brand management consultant and a conservative Chicago radio personality.

NYTimes uncovered details about the operation through interviews with more than 30 current and former employees and clients as well as thousands of internal e-mails between reporters and editors spanning several years.

Mr Timpone did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him. Many of his executives did not respond to, or declined, requests for comment.

Mr Timpone's network has more than twice as many sites as the nation's largest newspaper chain, Gannett. 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.

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 NYTimes.

The companies that run the sites have received at least US$1.7 million from Republican political campaigns and conservative groups, according to tax records and campaign finance reports.

Mr Ian Prior, a Republican operative, was behind the articles about Ms Gideon. He previously worked for the Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee that has spent US$9.7 million against Ms Gideon.

A spokesman for Ms Collins, the Maine senator, said the campaign answers questions "from media outlets of all stripes and persuasions".

Mr Prior leads a PR firm, and said in an e-mail that he pitches stories to a variety of outlets. He did not respond to questions about whether he had paid for the coverage.

Mr Ben Ashkar, chief operating officer of Locality Labs, one of the companies connected to the sites, said he did not think people would pay for coverage.

"I hope not," he said. "How would I know? Honestly, I don't think people are paying."

Ms Jeanne Ives, a Republican candidate for the US House in Illinois, paid Mr 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.

Asked if she was paying for positive coverage, she replied: "Oh, no, there's none of that going on, I assure you."

NYTIMES

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2020, with the headline 'Pay for coverage' network rises amid US local news void. Subscribe