In a column last week, Tribune op-ed writer Eric Zorn sideswiped a chain of community newspapers that don’t meet his standards. Zorn’s subject was the right-wing reaction to New Trier High School’s recent all-day, all-school “white privilege” seminar. It’s led to three conservative candidates running insurgency campaigns for seats on the New Trier Township board. Of these campaigns, Zorn wrote in passing:
“This development was greeted with enthusiasm by North Cook News, one of the mock journalism sites run by statewide GOP operative and conservative radio host Dan Proft. So brazenly propagandistic has Proft’s coverage of this race been that it doesn’t even mention the four slated candidates on the ballot.” [Emphasis mine.]
North Cook News is one of 20 papers in a year-old chain called Local Government Information Services, whose roots are in the Chicago suburbs but whose reach now extends to Carbondale, Rock Island, and Peoria. Zorn had another point to get to so he didn’t slow down, let alone stop to make a full report to his readers. But let me flesh out Zorn’s critique: if you’re looking for local coverage tailored to serve a political agenda and provided by “reporters” on the other side of the ocean, Proft’s papers are the ones to read.
Proft is something of a political operative, though I imagine he’d prefer a loftier description. He’s a senior fellow at the Illinois Policy Institute, which was generously funded when it was young by Governor Bruce Rauner’s family foundation. It’s now in the business of feeding free radio spots and newspaper articles to Illinois media too strapped to pay for something better. And it was behind the hyperpartisan documentary Madigan that it rolled out before last November’s elections, having hidden its own role in the project from some of the talking heads the producers enlisted.
Proft ran for governor in 2010, finishing sixth in the Republican primary.
Proft also hosts a weekly podcast, Illinois Rising Radio, up until last year with IPI’s vice president of policy, Michael Lucci. He distributes what he calls “upstream ideas” on Against the Current, a one-on-one subscription video-interview series. His lofty aim is to “arm you with new information and fresh perspectives with the goal of making Illinois and the United States of America a bit more free, a bit more just and a bit more civilized.”
But it’s hard for me to think of Proft as anything fancier than a drive-time host on a right-wing radio station, WIND-AM. Here’s Proft and cohost Amy Jacobson going at it a few days before last November’s presidential election.
Proft: “Here’s a fun e-mail from John Podesta—did you see this?”
Jacobson: “Oh, I heard about it.”
Proft: (reading): “People tell me that Hillary is acting ‘like a retard’ since her head injury.”
Proft: (reading): “‘Have someone talk to her doctor and see if there’s anything he can give her.’ . . . Podesta’s e-mail goes on—this is the fun part— ‘Also, I’ve noticed she has an “odor” lately.'”
Jacobson: “Mmmm! Oh my gosh!”
Proft (reading): “‘It reminds me of a combination of boiled cabbage, urine, and gas.'” [Proft spares his audience here. The “e-mail” says “farts.”]
Jacobson: “To her friend!”
Proft: “He’s the campaign chairman!”
Proft (reading): “‘I’m guessing it’s connected either to her fall or simply the fact that she rarely bathes. Outside of encouraging her to take a shower once in a while, I don’t know what to do about this—any suggestions would be appreciated.'”
Jacobson: An assortment of gasps and exclamations.
Proft: “Ewww boy, that is vivid! I can almost smell that and I don’t want to. Ewww.”
Jacobson: “It’s very vivid in the details there. He brought the smell to life.”
Proft: “I think the fact that she rarely showers! Anybody got any ideas how we can get the stink off Hillary Clinton? 312-642-5600. We’ll take your ideas. We’ll pass them along to John Podesta and the campaign team, trying to help out here, at least that stink associated with Hillary Clinton.”
And thus Proft established, in my mind at least, a ceiling for how seriously he can be taken as either a journalist—or an adult. Snopes examined this supposed e-mail and observed that although it showed up at a time Wikileaks was dumping a “flood” of actual hacked e-mails to and from Podesta, “it was pretty simple to discern via WikiLeaks searchable archive that no such offensive e-mail exists.”
Perhaps Proft was too obtuse to suspect anything; perhaps he didn’t care.
In creating Local Government Information Services, Proft spotted a need—a lack of local political coverage outside the big cities—and an opportunity.
“We have a point of view,” he told Lynne Marek of Crain’s Chicago Business, “and we want to advance that point of view in terms of policy solutions.”
Proft teamed up with Brian Timpone, whose theories about journalism done on the cheap seduced the Tribune five years ago. That’s when the Trib signed up Timpone’s Journatic to provide local copy to its TribLocal community papers. It called Timpone’s operation a “media content provider” that “aggregates data.” Journatic was journalism by data suck and algorithm.
Timpone did his best back then to explain it to me. He said that in Homewood-Flossmoor, for instance, Journatic created a database of around “100 newsmaking organizations”—such as women’s clubs, churches, schools, and sports teams and their schedules.
“The whole purpose of this is not to replace reporters,” Timpone said, “it’s to clear the way for reporters to do what they uniquely do. No reporter wants to get the honor roll.”
True that! Yet Journatic quickly came a cropper.
Two months in, This American Life ran a long report about how TribLocal stories were actually being written in the Philippines. Ryan Smith, a Journatic minion who’d been TAL‘s source (and who’s now the Reader‘s social media editor), followed with a long piece for the Guardian.
“Over the last two or three years,” he wrote, “the Chicago-based content provider has infiltrated dozens of mid to major newspapers across the country and obtained contracts to produce so-called ‘hyperlocal’ news content. Those deals often lead to a horde of firings of editorial staff at those news organizations, as some full-time office-dwellers cede work to a small army of low-paid freelancers living all around the globe.”
Smith confessed to writing stories for major newspapers in places like Texas he’d never set foot in. And besides freelancers like himself covering the country for Journatic from whatever part of it they happened to live in, there were also the ones operating in the Philippines under fake bylines.
The Tribune and Journatic soon parted company. Timpone changed the name of his business to LocalLabs and put an end to made-up bylines. But he made no guarantees about his future contributors living in the same city, state, or on the same continent as the stories they were covering.
I’ve compared the North Cook News’ news gatherers to their Facebook pages to get an idea of where they’re based. The young writer who provided North Cook News‘ “white privilege” coverage appears to live in the Chicago area, I’m pleased to say. But Ruth de Jauregui, a prolific contributor to North Cook News and other Proft/Timpone newspapers, appears to live in Oregon, and Lhalie Castillo, who bylines a lot of what North Cook News calls its “local government” coverage, in the Philippines, as does the prolific Wadi Reformado, whose byline runs in papers not merely throughout Illinois but also in Texas, California, and Florida.
“We reject the premise that you have to live in a community to cover its local government,” Timpone said in an e-mail when I questioned him about his far-flung reporters. “In fact, we have found that living there is a negative, as reporters reporting on their own communities pull punches for fear of offending someone they see at the grocery store.”
Which is clearly not a risk Castillo runs writing on a cannabis ordinance in rural downstate Manteno, Illinois. Yet Timpone’s papers don’t add at the tag end of her stories, in order to reassure readers, “Reporting without fear or favor from the Philippines’ Batangas City.”
Someone entering data into a computer program that turns it into news copy is in a poor position to either pull punches or take cheap shots. But if blandness is imposed from abroad—and most of the LGIS stories are so dry and data-driven that the local journalists who weren’t hired to write them might almost be tempted to say Thank God it isn’t me!—decisions about what stories to publish at all are made locally. And Proft, as he made clear at the get-go, has an agenda.
No story better serves Proft’s agenda than a story about himself. Earlier this month the Proft/Timpone Sangamon Sun published Proft’s views on the state of Illinois politics. De Jauregui got the honor of donating her byline. The story began on this note:
“Dan Proft summed up his thoughts on the state’s so-called Grand Bargain compromise budget plan this way: ‘It is neither grand nor is it a bargain.'”
It’s a curious lead. Either a computer or an editor deemed the Proft name so compelling that no reader offered a taste of his pronouncements would turn away. The story then went on to identify Proft as president of the Liberty Principles PAC (through which, incidentally, Proft created the LGIS papers), cofounder of the LGIS chain, and a “well-known radio show host and businessman.” The story took it for granted that Proft’s views were important and it offered nobody who questioned them. Nor did the story identify the source of Proft’s views as simply a statement submitted to the senate or the reporter as someone several states away.
Proft and Timpone share a sharp eye for efficiencies. The Tribune said as much about Proft in an article last November examining the role of big money in the war between Rauner and Illinois house speaker Mike Madigan for control of Springfield. One major player was Proft’s Liberty Principles, funded with millions of dollars contributed by Rauner and his allies.
“Liberty Principles has used cookie-cutter ads critical of Democrats on behalf of Republican candidates in the House and Senate, splicing in images of the individual Democrat—often with a critical reference to Madigan,” the Tribune wrote.
Nothing makes quicker work of dough than a cookie cutter. Think of an algorithm as a cyber cookie cutter. Proft and Timpone’s version of community newspapering is no red-letter day for journalism, but as matches made in heaven go, they might be something special.
Update: This post has been updated to clarify that although Michael Lucci previously cohosted Illinois Rising Radio, he doesn’t at present.