Republican propaganda sites pretending to be local newspapers are on the rise: report
Susan Collins photo by Keith Mellnick

A new pay-for-play network is popping up with the purpose of promoting Republican candidates or smearing their rivals - and readers might not even know it.

The websites implement templates that legitimize the source with titles such as Des Moines Sun, Ann Arbor Times and Empire State Today. But behind the localized content, many of the stories being published are placed by political groups and corporate P.R. firms.

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, an investigation by The New York Times found.

The investigation uncovered that the network is largely overseen by TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur Brian Timpone, a Texas brand-management consultant and a conservative Chicago radio personality.

Interviews were compiled with 30 current and former employees, 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, according to the Times.

It was also revealed that client packages for $2,000 were being sold by a salesman for Timpone. These packages included running five articles and unlimited news releases with the stipulation that some articles would be decided by the reporter and not the client, necessarily.

Ben Ashkar, the chief operating officer of Locality Labs, one of the companies connected to the sites, 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.”

“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. She estimated that  approximately 2,100 newspapers have folded across the country since 2004, a 25 percent decline.