The proliferation of Republican-backed, secretive local-news sites is not a new story. We’ve talked about it on “Beat the Press” several times. Just a few weeks ago, I had to do some research to determine whether a digital newspaper I was writing about might be one such site. (It wasn’t.)
But a front-page story in today’s New York Times takes an unusually deep dive into the phenomenon. Davey Alba and Jack Nicas report that about 1,300 of these sites are under the control of Brian Timpone, “a TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur who has sought to capitalize on the decline of local news organizations for nearly two decades.”
Alba and Nicas carefully document what looks like something awfully close to “pay to play.” For instance, a Republican congressional candidate from Illinois named Jeanne Ives has paid Timpone’s operations $55,000 over the past three years. “During that time,” they write, “the Illinois sites have published overwhelmingly positive coverage of her, including running some of her news releases verbatim.” (Ives claims the money was for web services and Facebook ads rather than for favorable coverage.)
For me, the wildest angle was learning that Timpone is the guy who was behind Journatic, a much-loathed project that produced automated local news stories as well as content using grossly underpaid, out-of-town reporters — including cheap Filipino workers who wrote articles under fake bylines. As I wrote in 2012, Journatic’s work product was widely known as “pink slime” journalism, and it’s hard to see how Timpone’s news project is much better.
The new pink slime — which I should say is not limited to Republican sites, though they seem to comprise the overwhelming majority of them — takes advantage of the collapse of local news and the rise of news deserts throughout the country. Unsuspecting readers are no doubt grateful to run across some local news, and it’s only later (if at all) that they find out they’re reading propaganda. In that sense, Timpone’s operations are similar to Sinclair Broadcasting, which promotes a right-wing line but which, unlike Fox News, does so under the cover of a network of local television stations.
According to the map accompanying the Times story, there are 16 such pink-slime sites in Massachusetts. I’d love to see a list, and will add one if someone can point me to it.