That Fake Newspaper in Your Mailbox Was Paid For by Peter Thiel

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
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It was as if the Grand Canyon Times’ sports section had put a list of local football stars in a blender and printed the results. A brief profile on star running back Bijan Robinson was topped with a picture of tight end Aaron Greene, whose own biography showed a professional headshot of long snapper Ethan Nguyen. Other athletes’ profile pictures and biographical details also appeared randomized in the full-page spread on “former area high school football players.”

The rest of the paper—which was shared online by bemused Arizona sports fans—was chock-full of conservative political content, particularly articles championing Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters.

The Grand Canyon Times isn’t a traditional newspaper. It’s part of an opaque media organization that recycles right-wing news articles across a network of hyperlocal-sounding news websites, which are padded out with press releases. As the 2022 midterm elections approach, conservative campaigns have tapped the network to send realistic-looking (and unsolicited) newspapers to voters in critical districts.

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In publications like the Grand Canyon Times, the line between newspaper and political advertisement can be porous. At least two print editions of the paper, reviewed by The Daily Beast, contained disclaimers that described the contents as “paid for by the Saving Arizona PAC.” The PAC, which supports Masters’ Senate campaign, has received more than $13 million from conservative billionaire Peter Thiel.

The PAC did not return a request for comment. Nor did the Grand Canyon Times, which lists a single email address on its “contact us” page. It’s not even clear the Grand Canyon Times has a newsroom in Arizona. Instead, it’s an affiliate of Metric Media, a network of conservative websites tailored to look like local news outlets. Metric Media runs at least 15 other local-sounding outlets in Arizona, including the North Pima News and the Tucson Standard. All promote a curious blend of conservative talking points and reprinted press releases.

Metric Media is not a new operation. It’s run by Brian Timpone, a former news anchor-turned-political spokesman. For more than a decade, Timpone has run a network of media companies with names like Journatic, Pipeline Media, and Local Government Information Services (LGIS). Years of exposés from the likes of NPR, The New York Times, and Columbia Journalism Review have accused Timpone’s companies of dubious practices like plagiarism, fake quotes, using algorithms to write articles, and outsourcing local news to freelancers in the Philippines who used fake names. (Timpone did not return a request for comment.)

In 2020, the Times reported that publications in Timpone’s network accepted money from clients (often political operations) to write articles on topics of their choosing. “The clients pay us to produce a certain amount of copy each day for their websites,” read one Metric Media “tool kit” reviewed by the Times. “In some cases, the clients will provide their own copy.”

“Only a few dozen” sites in the sprawling network disclosed funding from political groups, the Times reported.

In the past, much of the network has been limited to news websites. But as the 2022 election season comes to a head, some of those publications have ventured into print.

Illinois residents may not have subscribed to newspapers with titles like the Chicago City Wire or the DuPage Policy Journal. But they’ve arrived on doorsteps across the state, with front-page headlines like “It’s going to be literally the end of days” and “No more boys and girls? Pritzker family leads push to replace ‘myth’ of biology.”

“Despite different names for the publications, all feature nearly identical stories,” the Chicago Tribune reported last month.

The papers, many of which attack Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker, are imprints of LGIS, a company Timpone launched with Florida-based Republican strategist Dan Proft. Proft, who did not return a request for comment, runs the “People Who Play By The Rules” political action committee.

People Who Play By The Rules has raked in more than $26 million this year from Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein. The PAC has spent more than $226,000 on services from Pipeline Media, another of Timpone’s companies, public filings show. The expenditures are earmarked as text messages, robocalls, and a website opposing Democratic candidates; it's unclear from the filings whether any of the PAC funding went toward LGIS publications.

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But publications in LGIS’s Illinois network do acknowledge outside funding, even if it’s unclear who’s backing the outlets. “Funding for this news site is provided, in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government,” reads a standard disclaimer on the “about” page of Illinois LGIS websites.

That disclaimer appeared in 2016, after the Illinois Board of Elections found one of Proft’s now-defunct PACs to have violated election communication rules, and ordered the PAC to “ensure that all future political literature and communications identify the PAC as payor.”

Although some Grand Canyon Times print editions contain disclaimers about funding from the pro-Masters Saving Arizona PAC, the paper’s website does not disclose its financial arrangement with the PAC. The site’s only passing mentions of Saving Arizona appear in a pair of articles that cast Masters in a positive light. (“Arizona native son runs for U.S. Senate,” reads one of the article headlines, published a full, baffling year after Masters declared his candidacy. The article does not list an author.)

Outside its politics pages, the paper’s offerings are scant: an error-ridden who’s-who of local football players; press releases; aggregated articles from authors whose work appears in other Metric publications in Georgia, Texas, and Illinois.

“Virginia Sen. Kyrsten Sinema gave a speech in defense of bipartisanship,” begins an Oct. 4 article that topped the Grand Canyon Times website. Sinema does not represent Virginia, but Arizona, the state where the Grand Canyon Times is ostensibly located.

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