About a decade ago, Mr. Timpone started Journatic, a service that aimed to automate and outsource reporters’ jobs, selling it to two of the nation’s largest chains, Hearst and Tribune Publishing. He used rudimentary software to turn public data into snippets of news. That content still fills most of his sites. And for the articles written by humans, he simply paid reporters less, even using workers in the Philippines who wrote under fake bylines.
When the radio show “This American Life” revealed his strategy in 2012, Mr. Timpone defended his approach as a way to save local news. “No one covers all these small towns,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re the solution, but we’re certainly on the road to the solution.”
Around 2015, he teamed up with Mr. Proft and started a chain of websites and free newspapers focused on suburban and rural areas of Illinois.
The publications looked like typical news outlets that covered their communities. But a political action committee controlled by Mr. Proft paid Mr. Timpone’s companies at least $646,000 from 2016 to 2018, according to state campaign finance records, money that largely came from Dick Uihlein, a conservative megadonor and the head of the shipping-supply giant Uline.
After complaints, the Illinois Board of Elections ordered the newspapers to say Mr. Proft’s committee funded them. A small disclaimer in their “About” pages now says the sites are funded, “in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government.” The Illinois sites are virtually the only ones in Mr. Timpone’s network with such a disclosure.
The regulators’ questions didn’t slow Mr. Timpone down. He doubled the size of the Illinois network to 34 sites, and by 2017 was expanding to other states. He also added dozens of sites with focuses beyond politics, including 11 that look like traditional legal-news publications but are funded by a U.S. Chamber of Commerce group.
Then, from June through October last year, the network ballooned further, from roughly 300 sites to nearly 1,300, according to a Times analysis of data collected by the Global Disinformation Index, an internet research group. (The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University tallied a similar number of sites in the network.)