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When the native information dies, a pay-for-play community is created as a replacement

About a decade ago, Mr. Timpone started Journatic, a service aimed at automating and outsourcing the jobs of reporters, and sold it to two of the largest chains in the country, Hearst and Tribune Publishing. He used rudimentary software to turn public data into snippets of news. This content still fills most of his websites. And for the articles written by people, he just paid reporters less, even when he put workers in the Philippines to write under false bylines.

When the 2012 radio show "This American Life" revealed his strategy, Mr. Timpone defended his approach to save local news. "Nobody covers all these little towns," he said. "I'm not saying we are the solution, but we are on the way to the solution."

Around 2015, he teamed up with Mr. Proft to create a chain of websites and free newspapers focused on suburban and rural areas in Illinois.

The publications looked like typical news outlets covering their communities. A political action committee controlled by Mr. Proft paid at least $ 646,000 to Mr. Timpone's companies from 2016 to 2018. This emerges from financial reports for the state campaigns, most of which came from Dick Uihlein, a conservative mega-donor and head of the shipping giant Uline.

After complaints, the Illinois Board of Elections ordered the newspapers to say that Mr. Proft's committee had funded them. A small disclaimer on their "About" pages now states that the sites are "partially funded by stakeholders who share our belief in limited government". The Illinois locations are virtually the only ones on Mr. Timpone's network with such disclosure.

The questions from the regulators did not stop Mr Timpone. It doubled the size of the Illinois network to 34 locations and expanded to other states by 2017. He also added dozens of websites with a focus beyond politics, including eleven that look like traditional legal news but are funded by a group from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

From June to October last year, the network continued to grow from around 300 locations 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 counted a similar number of locations on the network.)

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