In March this year, the small Illinois town of Hinsdale, in the western Chicago suburbs, was facing a crisis.
The village’s district had a funding shortfall, and a referendum was scheduled to determine whether $140m could be pumped into Hinsdale’s schools.
The referendum was hotly contested – an organized, enthused Vote Yes campaign was pushing hard for people to back the vote. It looked like the referendum might deliver a yes verdict.
Enter Locality Labs, a shadowy, controversial company that purports to be a local news organization, but is facing increasing criticism as being part of a nationwide rightwing lobbying effort masquerading as journalism.
The company, with two other linked organizations, was responsible for the Hinsdale School News, a print newspaper that was distributed around Hinsdale voters. The paper had the Hinsdale high school district logo, and the look of a journalistic organization. But, as the Hinsdalean reported, the “newspaper” was stuffed full of articles, mostly byline-free, which had a distinct anti-referendum skew.
“The depths of what they went to were pretty egregious,” said Joan Brandeis, who was part of the Vote Yes Campaign.
“This was purposely done to mislead people into thinking that was a publication from the district.”
The unusual effort in Hinsdale – which ultimately failed when Hinsdale voted yes to the $140m funding, was one of the more strident examples of what appears to be a sweeping effort to populate the country with local, rightwing-skewed news sites.
Locality Labs operates scores of sites across Illinois, Michigan, Maryland and Wisconsin, often sharing content. In Michigan alone, the Lansing State Journal reported, almost 40 sites opened in one fell swoop this fall.
“It is always a bit troubling in the current environment when websites don’t really indicate what they’re all about, and sort of hide who is behind them, and I think that’s clearly the case here,” said Matt Gertz, a senior fellow at the not-for-profit press watchdog Media Matters.
“In the fractured media environment that we’re operating in now, if you’re just scrolling through your Facebook feed or your Twitter feed and you see an article, you click on it and you might take in the information from there without really ever wondering what the source actually is.”
You might take in the information from there without really ever wondering what the source actually isMatt Gertz
The CEO of Locality Labs is Brian Timpone, an ex-journalist with a track record of operating dubious news organizations. Timpone’s predecessor to Locality Labs was a company called Journatic, which saw a licensing contract with the Chicago Tribune torn up after it published plagiarized articles and made up quotes and fake names for its writers. Locality Labs did not respond to a request for comment.
Locality Labs’ sites are almost identical in layout. The Great Lakes Wire is similar to the Ann Arbor Times, which bears a striking resemblance to the DuPage Policy Journal and the Prairie State Wire.
Each has the look of a local news organization, with information on gas prices and local businesses.
Some of the sites – in a slightly difficult to find “About” section – say they are a product of Local Government Information Services, and state that they are funded by advocacy groups who believe in “limited government”.
But others – the Prairie State Wire, for example – either do not, or they claim to be an “objective” product of a Locality Labs-linked company called Metrics Media, despite retaining their rightwing tone.
What the sites all have in common is praising Republican politicians, and denigrating Democratic ones.
Last week Illinois sites – including the West Cook News, Grundy Reporter, South Central Reporter and Illinois Valley Times – each ran a story about a thinktank criticizing JB Pritzker, the state’s Democratic governor.
The stories were all written by Glenn Minnis – whose byline was also listed in the Hinsdale School News. None of the articles mentioned that the thinktank in question was a rightwing, anti-tax lobbying organization.
Other articles written by Minnis include a slew of stories in support of Jeanne Ives, a Republican candidate for Congress.
Ives’ Federal Election Commission filings show that she paid $2,000 to a company called Franklin Archer this year. The CEO of Franklin Archer is Michael Timpone, who a former Franklin Archer employee confirmed to the Guardian is the brother of Locality Labs’ Timpone.
‘There’s this understanding that local news is in shambles now’
Ives made the $2,000 payment to Franklin Archer in August, around the same time Locality Labs-operated news sites began writing articles praising her and her campaign. Franklin Archer did not respond to a request for comment.
Opinion as news is nothing new. But the appearance of the rightwing-skewed Locality Labs sites, presented as merely local news, has been aided by the demise of the local news industry in America as real local newspapers have shut down in droves, sometimes leading to “news deserts”.
About 1,800 newspapers closed between 2004 and 2018, while a University of North Carolina study last year found that 1,300 US communities have completely lost news coverage.
“There’s this understanding that local news is in shambles right now, that newspapers across the country are failing and that there is a lack of local coverage,” Gertz said. Despite that crisis, Gertz said people still tend to have more faith in local news than in national outlets.
“And so there’s an idea here that you can move in and take advantage of that, of both the lack of local news options and the fact that people are inclined to trust local news by creating these hyperlocal news sites and provide no little bit of conservative propaganda.”
The trend has already been documented in television news. The conservative-friendly media firm Sinclair Media Group has spent the last few years buying up local television stations – it currently owns almost 200 across the country.
A 2018 study into Sinclair, by the Emory University political scientists Gregory Martin and Josh McCrain, found that once Sinclair absorbed a new channel, the station’s output quickly changed tone. The newly acquired stations reduce coverage of local news, Martin and McCrain wrote, “and move the ideological tone of coverage in a conservative direction”.
“Something like Sinclair is more concerning simply because they have the built-in audience. They’re moving into metropolises by buying local stations,” Gertz said.
“There’s a clear model for actually having political influence.”
The model for Locality Labs is less tried and tested. But with the decline of local news unlikely to be reversed anytime soon, it seems the opportunities for further murkiness will only get larger.