#6. Shadow Network of Conservative Outlets Emerges to Exploit Faith in Local News

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

A December 2019 report by the Columbia Journalism Review highlighted how a network of 450 websites operated by five corporate organizations in twelve states “mimic the appearance and output of traditional news organizations” in order to “manipulate public opinion by exploiting faith in local media.” These sites “co-opt the language, design and structure of news organizations,” Priyanjana Bengani reported, to “cover certain candidates and topics, including limited government, tort reform, and labour unions, with a conservative bias.”

The story of “[d]ozens of websites branded as local news outlets” in Michigan, a crucial swing state in the 2016 election, was originally reported by Carol Thompson for the Lansing State Journal in October 2019. The CJR report expanded on previous investigations conducted by Thompson, the Michigan Daily, and others, which had identified around two hundred sites in several states posing as local news outlets while publishing politically biased content. 

Thompson’s original report for the Lansing State Journal noted that the network of websites in Michigan shared a common “About Us” section, identifying Metric Media as the publisher and describing its plans to launch thousands of such sites nationwide. The sites’ privacy policies pages indicated that they were all operated by Locality Labs. Thompson reported that Locality Labs ran similar networks of sites in Illinois and Maryland, and identified Brian Timpone as Locality Labs’s CEO.

The Michigan Daily’s November 2019 report provided further detail on the intricate relationships between Brian Timpone, Metric Media, Locality Labs, and other outlets. Although the web of interconnected sites is difficult to follow, the CJR highlighted five corporate bodies with 21 news networks that are connected through a complex web of shared IP addresses, backend web IDs, and the involvement of Timpone. As CJR reported, “In 2012, Timpone’s company Journatic, an outlet known for its low-cost automated story generation (which became known as ‘pink slime journalism’), attracted national attention and outrage for faking bylines and quotes, and for plagiarism.” [Note: Ryan Smith, a freelance reporter who worked for Journatic, coined the term “pink slime journalism.” In 2012, Smith stated, “People didn’t think much about the beef they were eating until someone exposed the practice of putting so-called ‘pink slime’ into ground beef. . . . [C]ompanies like Journatic are providing the public ‘pink slime’ journalism.” See Anna Tarkov, “Journatic Worker Takes ‘This American Life’ inside Outsourced Journalism,” Poynter, June 30, 2012.] In 2013, Journatic rebranded as Locality Labs. 

Brian Timpone is also the co-founder of Local Government Information Services (LGIS), a network of more than thirty print and web publications in Illinois that feature conservative news and share the same layout as Metric Media’s websites. And, as CJR reported, in 2015 Timpone incorporated Newsinator, a firm that the Chicago Tribune described as having a history of “doing paid political work and offer[ing] marketing services to companies under the name Interactive Content Services.” The CEO of Franklin Archer, which operates the single largest network of these faux-local publications, is Michael Timpone, Brian’s brother. 

Based on CJR’s network analysis of Metric Media, Franklin Archer, Newsinator, LGIS, and Locality Labs (also known as Local Labs), Priyanjana Bengani concluded, “Typically, creating entities that focus on communities, local news, and single issues important to the general public would be a worthwhile endeavour. But, the partisan material present on the more established networks along with the ideological leanings of some of the key personnel give us pause.”

Since October 2019 at least three significant scholarly books have been published that address the topic of growing control over local media outlets by conservative owners with ties to right-wing organizations, but during the past year major corporate news outlets have provided minimal coverage of this topic. [See Anne Nelson, Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019); Katherine Stewart, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020); and Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).]

In October 2019 the New York Times published an article that credited the Lansing State Journal with breaking the story on pseudo-local news organizations in Michigan, and drew significantly from Carol Thompson’s original report. Corporate coverage has been lacking in regard to this Sinclair-like network of right-leaning news sites filling the holes left by the demise of many local news outlets. The Columbia Journalism Review’s piece expands on the breadth and scope of previous coverage, but its findings do not appear to have been reported by any of the major establishment news outlets.

Priyanjana Bengani, “Hundreds of ‘Pink Slime’ Local News Outlets are Distributing Algorithmic Stories and Conservative Talking Points,” Columbia Journalism Review, December 18, 2019, https://www.cjr.org/tow_center_reports/hundreds-of-pink-slime-local-news-outlets-are-distributing-algorithmic-stories-conservative-talking-points.php.

Katherina Sourine and Dominick Sokotoff, “Pseudo Local News Sites in Michigan Reveal Nationally Expanding Network,” Michigan Daily, November 1, 2019, https://www.michigandaily.com/section/community-affairs/pseudo-local-news-sites-michigan-reveal-nationally-expanding-network.

Carol Thompson, “Dozens of New Websites Appear to be Michigan Local News Outlets, but with Political Bent,” Lansing State Journal, October 20, 2019, updated October 22, 2019, https://www.lansingstatejournal.com/story/news/local/2019/10/21/lansing-sun-new-sites-michigan-local-news-outlets/3984689002/.

Student Researcher: Troy Patton (Diablo Valley College)

Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)