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 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.
The local sites include
The growth of partisan media masquerading as state and local reporting is a troubling trend we’ve seen emerge amid the financial declines of local news organizations. But what do these outlets mean for journalism in American communities?
Using previous research and news reports as a guide, we’ve mapped the locations of more than 400 partisan media outlets — often funded and operated by government officials, political candidates, PACs, and political party operatives — and found, somewhat unsurprisingly, that these outlets are emerging most often in swing states, raising a concern about the ability of such organizations to fill community information needs while prioritizing the electoral value of an audience.
We found that while the (few) left-leaning sites prioritize statewide reporting, right-leaning sites are more focused on local reporting, suggesting different strategies for engaging with targeted audiences and indicating the potential for these sites to exacerbate polarization in local communities.
Here’s our map of how these sources are distributed across the U.S., along with their partisan orientation: