An online publication that portrays itself as a local news site in Maine is part of a network of sites that publish articles on commission and has failed to disclose ties to political operatives and campaigns.

The site, Maine Business Daily, was part of a New York Times story Sunday that detailed the operations of the network of more than 1,200 websites that resemble state or local news but routinely publish content ordered and even paid for by conservative groups or public relations firms.

The Times’ story highlighted an Aug. 2019 story in Maine Business Daily shaped by a Republican operative who pushed the publication to write a one-sided article quoting a spokesman for the campaign of Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and criticizing her Democratic opponent, Sara Gideon.

The stories come as both political parties have poured millions of dollars into advertising and digital content sometimes presented as news in an attempt to sway the 2020 elections. Maine and other places have also seen a rise in partisan news sites in recent years, including the progressive Maine Beacon and the conservative Maine Examiner.

“Transparency is foundational to journalism ethics,” said Michael Socolow, director of the McGillicuddy Humanities Center at the University of Maine, in an email Monday. “If these outlets are being fully honest with readers about their ownership and funding, then the fact that they might be providing news content with a political bias isn’t necessarily unethical. From an ethical standpoint, the more important questions concern whether the content is accurate, fact-based, verifiable, and supported by established, accepted evidence.”

Beacon states on its website that it is a project of the Maine People’s Alliance. The Maine Examiner was being run anonymously at the time it published articles undermining the Lewiston mayoral campaign of Democrat Ben Chin in 2018, but Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage has since identified himself as the site’s owner and operator, and his name and role with the Republican party are now listed on the site’s “about” page.

Maine Business Daily describes itself in a short statement on the site that reads, “Our mission is to be a key source of information about our state’s business climate, daily business transactions, and entrepreneurship. We also provide important data and facts about the state’s economy to improve discussion among policy makers, business leaders, and the public.”

However, the site does not list who its reporters or editors are and several of the articles are labeled as press release submissions. An email seeking information such as how many reporters and editors there are, how stories are identified and whether the site publishes paid-for content, was not answered Monday.

According to the Times, Maine Business Daily is part of a network of more than 1,200 websites and publications nationwide overseen by Brian Timpone, a former TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur. The newspaper reported that interviews and emails it obtained show the network has instructed reporters to write with a conservative focus, sometimes with instructions from “clients,” and received at least $1.7 million in funding from Republican political campaigns and conservative groups across its companies.

Annie Clark, a spokeswoman for Collins’ campaign, said in a statement Monday that the campaign received an email inquiry from Maine Business Daily for the Aug. 2019 story and had not heard of the publication prior to receiving the email. She said they responded to the reporter, Angela Underwood.

“Our campaign responds to media outlets that span the ideological spectrum,” Clark said. “For example, Senator Collins has taken questions directly from the Maine Beacon – a literal fake news juggernaut that is a powerful and active arm of the Maine People’s Alliance, a democratic group that is actively campaigning against her.”

Underwood, meanwhile, said in an interview Monday that she worked for almost two years for companies in the Timpone network. Although she lives in upstate New York, Underwood said, most of her work for the company involved covering Illinois politics. She said she was always instructed to favor Republicans in her coverage.

“I know ethical journalism and I know when I was involved with that, it wasn’t fair what they were asking me to do,” she said. “I knew Dems should have a shot, but they always wanted me to favor the GOP.”

Ian Prior, who the Times said was the Republican operative behind the Collins article, could not be reached Monday. An attempt to reach Prior through the contact form on the website of his group Headwaters Media was not successful. Clark said the Collins’ campaign does not have a connection to him.

In August, the Columbia Journalism Review published a full list of the Timpone network’s websites around the country, which include 14 others in Maine in addition to Maine Business Daily. Most, like the site Portland Maine News, are part of a company called Metric Media.

The review found over 90 percent of stories in Metric Media and a sister company, Franklin Archer, are algorithmically generated using publicly available data sets or by repurposing stories from legitimate sources. In stories with an authentic byline there is often a conservative bent, the review found.

“Metric Media was established to fill the void in community news after years of decline in local reporting by legacy media,” reads a description on the Portland Maine News “about” page. “This site is one of hundreds nationwide to inform citizens about news in their local communities. Many local and state governments operate without sufficient media oversight. When citizens are deprived of basic government information, communities and civic discourse suffer.

“Our approach is to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias. We provide 100% original reporting, including to share as much data as possible from government and other publicly available sources. We also provide a platform for all citizens whose views on issues are rarely heard. If you want a voice in your community, we want to hear from you.”

An email to the address provided on the site asking how the site is run, where story ideas come from and whether any stories are paid-for content, was not returned Monday. An email to Metric Media also was not returned. Metric Media lists an Austin, Texas, mailing address on its site while Portland Maine News lists a Dover, Delaware, mailing address.

Socolow, the University of Maine professor, said Maine has been at the forefront in the emergence of partisan news sites, possibly because of its older demographics.

“I suspect Maine pioneered this media trend because Maine’s media market is small enough that it didn’t cost much, the electorate is older than most states – and therefore more susceptible to influence via Facebook sharing, and not being a major media market, the people doing it thought it’d be easier to fool people and not be detected,” he said.

Back in 2018 when questions emerged about the Maine Examiner, Socolow said he wondered whether the trend in partisan news sites would appear elsewhere. “Well, it has,” he said. “What seems to have been pioneered up here is now nationwide and both sides have started to employ it.”


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