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The Hot New Covid Tech Is Wearable and Constantly Tracks You

In Rochester, Mich., Oakland University is preparing to hand out wearable devices to students that log skin temperature once a minute — or more than 1,400 times per day — in the hopes of pinpointing early signs of the coronavirus.

In Plano, Texas, employees at the headquarters of Rent-A-Center recently started wearing proximity detectors that log their close contacts with one another and can be used to alert them to possible virus exposure.

And in Knoxville, students on the University of Tennessee football team tuck proximity trackers under their shoulder pads during games — allowing the team’s medical director to trace which players may have spent more than 15 minutes near a teammate or an opposing player.

The powerful new surveillance systems, wearable devices that continuously monitor users, are the latest high-tech gadgets to emerge in the battle to hinder the coronavirus. Some sports leagues, factories and nursing homes have already deployed them. Resorts are rushing to adopt them. A few schools are preparing to try them. And the conference industry is eyeing them as a potential tool to help reopen convention centers.

“Everyone is in the early stages of this,” said Laura Becker, a research manager focusing on employee experience at the International Data Corporation, a market research firm. “If it works, the market could be huge because everyone wants to get back to some sense of normalcy.”

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Credit…BioIntelliSense, Inc.

Companies and industry analysts say the wearable trackers fill an important gap in pandemic safety. Many employers and colleges have adopted virus screening tools like symptom-checking apps and temperature-scanning cameras. But they are not designed to catch the estimated 40 percent of people with Covid-19 infections who may never develop symptoms like fevers.

Some offices have also adopted smartphone virus-tracing apps that detect users’ proximity. But the new wearable trackers serve a different audience: workplaces like factories where workers cannot bring their phones, or sports teams whose athletes spend time close together.

This spring, when coronavirus infections began to spike, many professional football and basketball teams in the United States were already using sports performance monitoring technology from Kinexon, a company in Munich whose wearable sensors track data like an athlete’s speed and distance. The company quickly adapted its devices for the pandemic, introducing SafeZone, a system that logs close contacts between players or coaches and emits a warning light if they get within six feet. The National Football League began requiring players, coaches and staff to wear the trackers in September.

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Credit…Brandon Wade/Associated Press

The data has helped trace the contacts of about 140 N.F.L. players and personnel who have tested positive since September, including an outbreak among the Tennessee Titans, said Dr. Thom Mayer, the medical director of the N.F.L. Players Association. The system is particularly helpful in ruling out people who spent less than 15 minutes near infected colleagues, he added.

College football teams in the Southeastern Conference also use Kinexon trackers. Dr. Chris Klenck, the head team physician at the University of Tennessee, said the proximity data helped teams understand when the athletes spent more than 15 minutes close together. They discovered it was rarely on the field during games, but often on the sideline.

“We’re able to tabulate that data, and from that information we can help identify people who are close contacts to someone who’s positive,” Dr. Klenck said.

Civil rights and privacy experts warn that the spread of such wearable continuous-monitoring devices could lead to new forms of surveillance that outlast the pandemic — ushering into the real world the same kind of extensive tracking that companies like Facebook and Google have instituted online. They also caution that some wearable sensors could enable employers, colleges or law enforcement agencies to reconstruct people’s locations or social networks, chilling their ability to meet and speak freely. And they say these data-mining risks could disproportionately affect certain workers or students, like undocumented immigrants or political activists.

“It’s chilling that these invasive and unproven devices could become a condition for keeping our jobs, attending school or taking part in public life,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a nonprofit in Manhattan. “Even worse, there’s nothing to stop police or ICE from requiring schools and employers to hand over this data.”

Executives at Kinexon and other companies that market the wearable trackers said in recent interviews that they had thought deeply about the novel data-mining risks and had taken steps to mitigate them.

Devices from Microshare, a workplace analytics company that makes proximity detection sensors, use Bluetooth technology to detect and log people wearing the trackers who come into close contact with one another for more than 10 or 15 minutes. But the system does not continuously monitor users’ locations, said Ron Rock, the chief executive of Microshare. And it uses ID codes, not employees’ real names, to log close contacts.

Mr. Rock added that the system was designed for human resources managers or security officials at client companies to use to identify and alert employees who spent time near an infected person, not to map workers’ social connections.

GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical giant, recently began working with Microshare to develop a virus-tracing system for its sites that make over-the-counter drugs. Budaja Lim, head of digital supply chain technology for Asia Pacific at the company’s consumer health care division, said he wanted to ensure maximum privacy for workers who would wear the proximity detection sensors.

As a result, he said, the system silos the data it collects. It logs close contacts between workers using ID numbers, he said. And it separately records the ID numbers of workers who spent time in certain locations — like a packaging station in a warehouse — enabling the company to hyper-clean specific areas where an infected person may have spent time.

GlaxoSmithKline recently tested the system at a site in Malaysia and is rolling it out to other consumer health plants in Africa, Asia and Europe. The tracking data has also allowed the company to see where workers seem to be spending an unusual amount of time close together, like a security desk, and modify procedures to improve social distancing, Mr. Lim said.

“It was really designed to be a reactive type of solution” to trace workers with possible virus exposure, he said. “But it has actually become a really powerful tool to proactively manage and protect our employee safety.”

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Credit…Emily Rose Bennett for The New York Times

Oakland University, a public research university near Detroit, is at the forefront of schools and companies preparing to making the leap to the BioButton, a novel coin-size sensor attached to the skin 24/7 that uses algorithms to try to detect possible signs of Covid-19.

Whether such continuous surveillance of students, a young and largely healthy population, is beneficial is not yet known. Researchers are only in the early phases of studying whether wearable technology could help flag signs of the disease.

David A. Stone, vice president for research at Oakland University, said school officials had carefully vetted the BioButton and concluded it was a low-risk device that, added to measures like social distancing and mask wearing, might help hinder the spread of the virus. The technology will alert campus health services to students with possible virus symptoms, he said, but the school will not receive specific data like their temperature readings.

“In an ideal world, we would love to be able to wait until this is an F.D.A.-approved diagnostic,” Dr. Stone said. But, he added, “nothing about this pandemic has been in an ideal world.”

Dr. James Mault, chief executive of BioIntelliSense, the start-up behind the BioButton, said students with privacy concerns could ask to have their personal details stripped from the company’s records. He added that BioIntelliSense was preparing to conduct a large-scale study examining its system’s effectiveness for Covid-19.

Oakland had initially planned to require athletes and dorm residents to wear the BioButton. But the university reversed course this summer after nearly 2,500 students and staff members signed a petition objecting to the policy. The tracker will now be optional for students.

“A lot of colleges are doing masks and social distancing,” said Tyler Dixon, a senior at the school who started the petition, “but this seemed like one step too far.”

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How One Entrepreneur Changed Her Business Model in the Pandemic

Sarah Figueroa had worked for several years to build a company, called Geojam, that would connect fans at concerts and give sponsors a look at what was working and what wasn’t.

“The dream was to connect people through music, in real life,” Ms. Figueroa said. “I’m at a concert. You’re also a fan. Let’s link up.”

Geojam, started last year, was going to meld her interests in social media, marketing, live events and music. The company planned a 50-college tour at the start of this year to test the idea.

“We had artists at every single school,” she said. “Colleges were competing to win a free concert. Our investors were so excited.”

Then, of course, the pandemic happened.

Yet for Geojam, that wasn’t the end of the story. While the pandemic vastly curtailed live events, which like the hospitality, restaurant and travel industry ground to a near halt, the company and the artists found a way to come together.

In March, Ms. Figueroa decided to use her company’s technology to directly connect artists with their fans, with a similar engagement model. More social media interactions around a particular artist equated to greater reward points for fans, who could exchange them for interactions with an artist, like one-on-one FaceTime calls, Zoom cooking classes or even an appearance in an advertising campaign.

What Ms. Figueroa, her two co-founders and investors were able to do isn’t going to work for everyone. But their pivot may offer useful lessons to other entrepreneurs regardless of their wealth and experience. And those lessons may come in handy as coronavirus cases rise again and small businesses that have made it this far struggle to get through a tough winter.

Have multiple lines within a business. Geojam was not Ms. Figueroa’s first venture. At age 26, she already had a hit (Undorm, which she started while in college to advertise apartments to college students and social organizations), a miss (Lenzjam, which she called a too-early version of TikTok) and one so-so venture (One Box Agency, a music marketing agency that gave her the idea for Geojam).

She was eager to test the concept of rewarding fans for their enthusiasm while compensating artists and turning a profit. In the live event model, there would have been plenty of sponsor cash to support Geojam’s planned data mining of fans’ reactions to sponsors’ marketing efforts. It was the kind of microtargeting that sponsors are eager to have.

When the pandemic derailed that model, Geojam began tracking how often fans were streaming particular artists, for example, and rewarding them with the points. At the same time, it paid artists for their time — money that came from outside investors.

“We’re still tracking what events people are attending, through livestreams on the Geojam platform,” Ms. Figueroa said. “We can also see what things they’re viewing and purchasing in the jam shop.”

That’s useful data she would not have had otherwise. She learned, for example, that fans of electronic music would rather get unique merchandise than have a direct experience with an artist. As a result, Geojam asked Dylan Matthew, an electronic musician, to create a custom jean jacket to promote his new EP.

Have artists at different points in their careers. When Geojam pivoted to a new model, it meant different things for artists at different points in their careers.

Geojam enabled Yung Pinch, a young hip-hop artist with a following within California beach culture, to connect with fans through FaceTime and earn money for each video call he did.

“I’ve always been super-interactive with my fans,” he said. “A D.M. now and again. But this is definitely new.”

He’s also played video games with fans and is running a contest to be in a music video. It’s a far cry from touring, when he would meet fans after a show. But it’s a way to stay engaged and keep himself busy, he said.

The company has helped artists who are established in other areas use this time to go in new directions. Ava Michelle, who starred in the Netflix film “Tall Girl,” used the platform to connect her film fans with new music she was releasing. It has also helped her connect her fans to the different brands she endorses, she said.

A more established artist like the rapper Machine Gun Kelly used Geojam to introduce his new album, “Tickets to My Downfall.” Before the pandemic, Machine Gun Kelly was doing hundreds of concerts a year, said his manager, Andre Cisco.

“We’re usually one of the top five touring artists in the world,” Mr. Cisco said. “Once the reality of the pandemic hit, we realized we had to keep the boat moving.”

There are now two billboards up in Los Angeles with an image of Machine Gun Kelly from his album and fans, shot separately, next to him. “It just seemed like something that would appeal to our fans,” Mr. Cisco said. “With limited shows, we want to keep as much energy in the fan base as we can and give them the incentive to listen to records and get once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”

Ms. Figueroa was then able to show his record label that they could get significant fan support for a fraction of the cost of a normal marketing campaign. “The billboards are an 80 percent reduction of what M.G.K. would normally cost to promote on social media,” she said. “We’re investing in his promotion so we can build case studies of how these experiences work, and charge for these experiences going forward.”

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Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Keep asking for money. While the products and experiences are free to fans, they’re not free to do. The company needs money to pay the artists and the companies it works with.

Ms. Figueroa was raising the company’s initial round of investments when the pandemic struck. She ended up raising $350,000 in the worst of the lockdown and closed the funding round at $1.65 million.

“I think the investors analyzed the deck more” ahead of Zoom calls, she said. “There was a little less emotion in the meeting. We were in beta, so they were looking at what we had. It was also helpful that we only had $350,000 left in our round.”

Jeffrey D’Alessio, an independent investor who made the last investment of the round six weeks ago, said he had gotten to know the company in the pandemic and had not met any of the principals in person. But he made the investment after several Zoom calls because he was impressed with how they had adapted the platform.

“They had the knowledge, the marketing ability and the strategy to go one way,” he said. “Considering the pandemic, they went another way. That did not dilute all the other things they did. They already had strong relationships with top artists.”

Brian Mac Mahon, who runs Expert Dojo, which invests in companies owned by women or immigrants, made his investment in Geojam at the start of the pandemic. He said he had invested $100,000 and planned to make future investments.

“When they came to us, they said artists need to have deeper relationships with fans and those who do will have more fans and make more money,” he said. “I loved the idea pre-pandemic. To me, they haven’t pivoted — it’s the digital engagement with fans that will determine success or failure.”

Bring in an advisory board. Going it alone is never easy. Ms. Figueroa had an advisory board in place long before the pandemic hit. And she was able to lean on its members when the pandemic changed her business.

One was Marcie Allen, who has arranged sponsorships for live events like South by Southwest and Billy Joel’s extended residency at Madison Square Garden.

“I’ve worked for her for several years and knew that she would be able to pivot,” said Ms. Allen, who also teaches at New York University. “They’re in essence a tool provided to artists and their managers to create unique experiences. Now, they’re providing revenue streams for artists and a promotional opportunity.”

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Justice Department Files Antitrust Lawsuit Against Google

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department accused Google of illegally protecting its monopoly over search and search advertising in a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, the government’s most significant legal challenge to a tech company’s market power in a generation.

In a 57-page complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, the agency accused Google of locking out competition in search by obtaining several exclusive business contracts and agreements. Google’s deals with Apple, mobile carriers and other handset makers to place its search engine as the default option for consumers accounted for most of its dominant market share in search, the agency said, a figure that it put at around 80 percent.

“For many years,” the suit said, “Google has used anticompetitive tactics to maintain and extend its monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising and general search text advertising — the cornerstones of its empire.”

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The suit reflects the pushback against the power of the nation’s largest corporations, and especially technology giants like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. Conservatives like President Trump and liberals like Senator Elizabeth Warren have been highly critical of the concentration of power in a handful of tech behemoths.

Attorney General William P. Barr, who was appointed by Mr. Trump, has played an unusually active role in the investigation. He pushed career Justice Department attorneys to bring the case by the end of September, prompting pushback from lawyers who wanted more time and complained of political influence. Mr. Barr has spoken publicly about the inquiry for months and set tight deadlines for the prosecutors leading the effort.

The lawsuit may stretch on for years and could set off a cascade of other antitrust lawsuits from state attorneys general. About four dozen states and jurisdictions have conducted parallel investigations and are expected to bring separate complaints against the company’s grip on technology for online advertising. Eleven state attorneys generals, all Republicans, signed on to support the federal lawsuit.

A victory for the government could remake one of America’s most recognizable companies and the internet economy that it has helped define since it was founded by two Stanford University graduate students in 1998. The Justice Department will not immediately put forward remedies, such as selling off parts of the company, in the lawsuit, the officials said. Such actions are typically pursued in later stages of a case.

Ryan Shores, an associate deputy attorney general, said “nothing is off the table” in terms of remedies.

Google has long denied accusations of antitrust violations, and the company is expected to fight the government’s efforts by using its global network of lawyers, economists and lobbyists. Alphabet, valued at $1.04 trillion and with cash reserves of $120 billion, has fought similar antitrust lawsuits in Europe. The company spent $12.7 million lobbying in the United States in 2019, making it one of the top corporate spenders in Washington.

The company says it has strong competition in the search market, with more people finding information on sites like Amazon. It says its services have been a boon for small businesses.

“Today’s lawsuit by the Department of Justice is deeply flawed,” Kent Walker, the company’s chief legal officer, said in a blog post. “People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives.”

Mr. Walker said the lawsuit would do “nothing to help consumers. To the contrary, it would artificially prop up lower-quality search alternatives, raise phone prices and make it harder for people to get the search services they want to use.”

Democratic lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee released a sprawling report on the tech giants two weeks ago, also accusing Google of controlling a monopoly over online search and the ads that come up when users enter a query.

“A significant number of entities — spanning major public corporations, small businesses and entrepreneurs — depend on Google for traffic, and no alternate search engine serves as a substitute,” the report said. The lawmakers also accused Apple, Amazon and Facebook of abusing their market power. They called for more aggressive enforcement of antitrust laws, and for Congress to consider strengthening them.

The scrutiny reflects how Google has become a dominant player in communications, commerce and media over the last two decades. That business is lucrative: Last year, Google brought in $34.3 billion in search revenue in the United States, according to the research firm eMarketer. That figure is expected to grow to $42.5 billion by 2022, the firm said.

In its complaint, the Justice Department said that Google’s actions had hurt consumers by stifling innovation, reducing choice and diminishing the quality of search services, including consumer data privacy. It also said that advertisers that use its products “must pay a toll to Google’s search advertising and general search text advertising monopolies.”

The lawsuit is the result of an investigation that has stretched for more than a year. Prosecutors have spoken with Google’s rivals in technology and media, collecting information and documents that could be used to build a case.

The Justice Department also investigated Google’s behavior and acquisitions in the overall market for digital advertising, which includes search, web display and video ads.

But the search case is the most straightforward, giving the government its best chance to win. To prevail, the Justice Department has to show two things: that Google is dominant in search, and that its deals with Apple and other companies hobble competition in the search market.

Gene Kimmelman, a former senior antitrust official at the agency, said the case focused on how Google’s lock on search allowed it to “control a treasure trove of user data and deny access to competitors.” He said the focus on contracts was significant because some were made when Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo posed a competitive threat to Google’s search.

In its blog post, Google argued that there is nothing wrong with its agreements with Apple, other handset manufacturers and carriers, comparing them to cereal brands paying for prominent placement on store shelves. It also said it was not difficult for consumers to switch default settings from Google to another search engine.

Mr. Barr, a former telecom executive at Verizon who once argued an antitrust case before the Supreme Court, signaled that he would put the tech giants under new scrutiny at his confirmation hearing in early 2019. He said that “a lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of the antitrust enforcers.”

He put the investigation under the control of his deputy, Jeffrey Rosen, who in turn hired an aide from a major law firm to oversee the case and other technology matters. Mr. Barr’s grip over the investigation tightened when the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, Makan Delrahim, recused himself from the investigation because he represented Google in its acquisition of the ad service DoubleClick in 2007.

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Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Mr. Barr pushed prosecutors to wrap up their inquiries — and decide whether to bring a case — before Election Day. While Justice Department officials are usually tight-lipped about their investigations until a case is filed, Mr. Barr publicly declared his intention to make a decision on the Google matter by the end of the summer.

This year, most of the roughly 40 lawyers building the case said they opposed bringing a complaint by Mr. Barr’s Sept. 30 deadline. Some said they would not sign the complaint, and several left the case this summer.

In a call with reporters on Tuesday, the agency’s lawyers were guarded about many aspects of the investigation, such as whether they considered building out the case to other parts of Google’s business or about their conversations with the company. They specifically avoided answering a question about whether the agency spoke to Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and former chief executive of its parent company, Alphabet.

Google last faced serious scrutiny from an American antitrust regulator nearly a decade ago, when the Federal Trade Commission investigated whether it had abused its power over the search market. The agency’s staff recommended bringing charges against the company, according to a memo reported on by The Wall Street Journal. But the agency’s five commissioners voted in 2013 not to bring a case.

Other governments have been more aggressive toward the big tech companies. The European Union has brought three antitrust cases against Google in recent years, focused on its search engine, advertising business and Android mobile operating system. Regulators in Britain and Australia are examining the digital advertising market, in inquiries that could ultimately implicate the company.

“It’s the most newsworthy monopolization action brought by the government since the Microsoft case in the late ‘90s,” said Bill Baer, a former chief of the Justice Department’s antitrust division. “It’s significant in that the government believes that a highly successful tech platform has engaged in conduct that maintains its monopoly power unlawfully, and as a result injures consumers and competition.”

Google and its allies will likely criticize the suit as politically motivated. The Trump administration has attacked Google, which owns YouTube, and other online platform companies as being slanted against conservative views.

The lawsuit will likely outlast the Trump administration. The Justice Department spent more than a decade taking on Microsoft. The agency filed its lawsuit against the company in 1998 and the settlement was approved in 2002.

Google’s representatives said they anticipated that it would be at least a year before the case went to trial.

While it is possible that a new Democratic administration would review the strategy behind the case, experts said it was unlikely that it would be withdrawn under new leadership.

Steve Lohr contributed reporting

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As Local News Dies, a Pay-for-Play Network Rises in Its Place

The instructions were clear: Write an article calling out Sara Gideon, a Democrat running for a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat in Maine, as a hypocrite.

Angela Underwood, a freelance reporter in upstate New York, took the $22 assignment over email. She contacted the spokesman for Senator Susan Collins, the Republican opponent, and wrote an article on his accusations that Ms. Gideon was two-faced for criticizing shadowy political groups and then accepting their help.

The short article was published on Maine Business Daily, a seemingly run-of-the-mill news website, under the headline “Sen. Collins camp says House Speaker Gideon’s actions are hypocritical.” It extensively quoted Ms. Collins’s spokesman but had no comment from Ms. Gideon’s campaign.

Then Ms. Underwood received another email: The “client” who had ordered up the article, her editor said, wanted it to add more detail.

The client, according to emails and the editing history reviewed by The New York Times, was a Republican operative.

Maine Business Daily is part of a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country. Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found.

The sites appear as ordinary local-news outlets, with names like Des Moines Sun, Ann Arbor Times and Empire State Today. They employ simple layouts and articles about local politics, community happenings and sometimes national issues, much like any local newspaper.

But behind the scenes, many of the stories are directed by political groups and corporate P.R. firms to promote a Republican candidate or a company, or to smear their rivals.



One of the websites in the network is Illinois Valley Times.

Nearly every story at the top of the homepage in early September was about Sue Rezin, a Republican state senator. Ms. Rezin said in an interview that she didn’t know why the outlet focused on her so much, but that she didn’t mind all the positive coverage.

As of Oct. 14, one reporter had written 34 of his last 40 stories on the site about Ms. Rezin. When contacted, he said the company would not let him speak to reporters.


The network is largely overseen by Brian Timpone, a TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur who has sought to capitalize on the decline of local news organizations for nearly two decades. He has built the network with the help of several others, including a Texas brand-management consultant and a conservative Chicago radio personality.

The Times uncovered details about the operation through interviews with more than 30 current and former employees and clients, as well as thousands of internal emails between reporters and editors spanning several years. Employees of the network shared emails and the editing history in the site’s publishing software that revealed who requested dozens of articles and how.

Mr. Timpone did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him by email and phone, or through a note left at his home in the Chicago suburbs. Many of his executives did not respond to or declined requests for comment.

The network is one of a proliferation of partisan local-news sites funded by political groups associated with both parties. Liberal donors have poured millions of dollars into operations like Courier, a network of eight sites that began covering local news in swing states last year. Conservative activists are running similar sites, like the Star News group in Tennessee, Virginia and Minnesota.

But those operations run just several sites each, while Mr. Timpone’s network has more than twice as many sites as the nation’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett. And while political groups have helped finance networks like Courier, investors in news operations typically don’t weigh in on specific articles.

While Mr. Timpone’s sites generally do not post information that is outright false, the operation is rooted in deception, eschewing hallmarks of news reporting like fairness and transparency. Only a few dozen of the sites disclose funding from advocacy groups. Traditional news organizations do not accept payment for articles; the Federal Trade Commission requires that advertising that looks like articles be clearly labeled as ads.

Most of the sites declare in their “About” pages that they to aim “to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias.” But in April, an editor for the network reminded freelancers that “clients want a politically conservative focus on their stories, so avoid writing stories that only focus on a Democrat lawmaker, bill, etc.,” according to an email viewed by The Times.

Other news organizations have raised concerns about the political bent of some of the sites. But the extent of the deceit has been concealed for years with confidentiality contracts for writers and a confusing web of companies that run the papers. Those companies have received at least $1.7 million from Republican political campaigns and conservative groups, according to tax records and campaign-finance reports, the only payments that could be traced in public records.

Editors for Mr. Timpone’s network assign work to freelancers dotted around the United States and abroad, often paying $3 to $36 per job. The assignments typically come with precise instructions on whom to interview and what to write, according to the internal correspondence. In some cases, those instructions are written by the network’s clients, who are sometimes the subjects of the articles.

The emails showed a salesman for Mr. Timpone’s sites offering a potential client a $2,000 package that included running five articles and unlimited news releases. The salesman stressed that reporters would call the shots on some articles, while the client would have a say on others.

Ian Prior, a Republican operative, was behind the articles about Ms. Gideon, the Senate candidate in Maine, as well as articles promoting Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Roy Blunt of Missouri, according to the internal records. Mr. Prior previously worked for the Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee that has spent $9.7 million against Ms. Gideon.

Juan David Leal, who has worked in the Mexico office of the Berkeley Research Group, a consulting firm, ordered up articles criticizing the Mexican government’s response to the coronavirus.

And employees at the Illinois Opportunity Project, a conservative advocacy group, requested dozens of articles about specific Republican politicians in Illinois. The group has paid $441,000 to Mr. Timpone’s companies, according to the nonprofit’s tax records.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Collins, the Maine senator, said the campaign answers questions “from media outlets of all stripes and persuasions,” including the Maine Beacon, a local-news outlet funded by a liberal group.

Mr. Prior leads a P.R. firm that markets its ability to get coverage in local-news outlets. He said in an email that he pitches stories to a variety of outlets, including Mr. Timpone’s network because it “actually covers local issues.” He did not respond to questions about whether he had paid for the coverage.

The Illinois Opportunity Project did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Leal did not comment for this article.

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Credit…Matthew Gilson

Some of the most popular articles on Mr. Timpone’s sites get tens of thousands of shares on social media. That is a modest reach in the national conversation. But with the focus on small towns, less readership is needed to make an impact. In some of those towns, Mr. Timpone’s outlets also publish newspapers and deliver them, unsolicited, to doorsteps.

Ben Ashkar, the chief operating officer of Locality Labs, one of the companies connected to the sites, was the sole executive at the network who spoke on the record for this article. He said he didn’t think people could pay for coverage.

“I hope not,” he said. “How would I know? Honestly I don’t think people are paying.”

Mr. Timpone, who turns 48 this month, got his start in politics by covering it. In the 1990s, he was a news anchor and reporter at Illinois TV stations. Eventually he became the spokesman for the State House’s Republican minority leader.

A personable guy and persuasive salesman, according to people who know him, Mr. Timpone then became focused on replacing the old print guard as a digital-news mogul.

“Big metro papers are like the fly in your house that gets slow and you just catch it with your hand,” he said in a 2015 interview with Dan Proft, a conservative radio talk show host in Chicago.

About a decade ago, Mr. Timpone started Journatic, a service that aimed to automate and outsource reporters’ jobs, selling it to two of the nation’s largest chains, Hearst and Tribune Publishing. He used rudimentary software to turn public data into snippets of news. That content still fills most of his sites. And for the articles written by humans, he simply paid reporters less, even using workers in the Philippines who wrote under fake bylines.

When the radio show “This American Life” revealed his strategy in 2012, Mr. Timpone defended his approach as a way to save local news. “No one covers all these small towns,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re the solution, but we’re certainly on the road to the solution.”

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

The publications looked like typical news outlets that covered their communities. But a political action committee controlled by Mr. Proft paid Mr. Timpone’s companies at least $646,000 from 2016 to 2018, according to state campaign finance records, money that largely came from Dick Uihlein, a conservative megadonor and the head of the shipping-supply giant Uline.

After complaints, the Illinois Board of Elections ordered the newspapers to say Mr. Proft’s committee funded them. A small disclaimer in their “About” pages now says the sites are funded, “in part, by advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government.” The Illinois sites are virtually the only ones in Mr. Timpone’s network with such a disclosure.

The regulators’ questions didn’t slow Mr. Timpone down. He doubled the size of the Illinois network to 34 sites, and by 2017 was expanding to other states. He also added dozens of sites with focuses beyond politics, including 11 that look like traditional legal-news publications but are funded by a U.S. Chamber of Commerce group.

Then, from June through October last year, the network ballooned further, from roughly 300 sites 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 tallied a similar number of sites in the network.)

Timpone network websites

Watch the number of sites in the network grow over time.

2020

By Ella Koeze·Websites that look like local news are placed on the map by county. Websites that look like state and intra-state regional news are placed by state. Dots are sized by the number of sites related to each county or state.·Data via Global Disinformation Index and Ben Decker. Sites were discovered using reverse lookups of Google Analytics and Google Adsense.

“It’s astounding to see how quickly the sites have popped up across the country in an attempt to fill the news void,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina journalism professor who has calculated that about 2,100 newspapers have folded across the country since 2004, a 25 percent decline.

Some of the new sites have only the automated content, but they have quickly sprung to life when local news has arisen. That happened in August when protests erupted in Kenosha, Wis., after the police shot an unarmed Black man. One of the sites, Kenosha Reporter, published multiple articles about the criminal backgrounds of the man and protesters. One of those articles was shared 22,000 times on Facebook, reaching 2.6 million people, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned data tool.

Mr. Timpone’s role in the network is supported by public and internal documents. In emails viewed by The Times, he assigned stories, and editors called him the network’s top executive.

He has also said publicly, and in a filing with the Federal Election Commission, that he runs some of the sites.

But the web of companies behind the network make it more difficult to track the money behind the sites, and even Mr. Timpone’s oversight of them. It is unclear whether that is intentional. Those companies include Metric Media, Locality Labs, Newsinator, Franklin Archer and Interactive Content Services. The exact ownership of the companies is also unclear.

Most of the network’s new sites say they are part of Metric Media. A Texas P.R. consultant named Bradley Cameron says in his online résumé that he is the general manager of Metric Media and is “currently retained by private investors to develop a national media enterprise.” Internal records show that the same editors run Metric Media’s news operations and Mr. Timpone’s other sites.

In August, two local newspapers, a combined 142 years old, in Mount Vernon, Ohio, and Lake Isabella, Calif, announced to their readers that they had been purchased by Metric Media LLC.

Tanner Salyers, a city councilman in Mount Vernon, population 17,000, said that when he emailed Metric Media to ask what its plans were for the town’s only newspaper, Mr. Timpone called back to say that he now owned the Mount Vernon News and that he would rebuild it. Yet since the change in ownership, Mr. Salyers said, the newspaper has cut much of its staff and reduced print circulation to two days a week from six.

“I’m the first person to admit that the Mount Vernon News was not Pulitzer material,” Mr. Salyers said. “But nevertheless, it was local and independent. You could go to the grocery store and bump into the writers.” Now, a reporter based in Atlanta has covered local happenings, he said, and not well. When a water line broke last week, forcing the town’s residents to boil their water, the Mount Vernon News didn’t mention it.

The Times spoke with 16 reporters who have worked for Mr. Timpone. Many said they overlooked their doubts about the job because the pay was steady and journalism gigs were scarce.

Pat Morris said she had begun writing for the network after being laid off from The Florham Park Eagle in northern New Jersey.

“I wanted to make a living,” she said. “I was tired of banging on doors.” She thought the sites were a “content mill” to sell ads, but she eventually figured out the mission. She quit in July.

Ms. Underwood, who wrote the Maine Business Daily article, said she, too, had felt duped once the political agenda had become clear.

“You say you’re never going to dance with the devil like that; you just judge people for doing it,” Ms. Underwood said. “And then you’re just in the exact same position.”

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Credit…Shane Lavalette for The New York Times

In the publishing tool used by reporters and editors at Mr. Timpone’s websites is a list of names with a peculiar title: “Story watchers.” These are Mr. Timpone’s clients.

The Times reviewed the history behind dozens of articles in the publishing tool, revealing more than 80 story watchers. Many have pitched stories with instructions on what reporters should write, whom they should talk to and what they should ask. Over 17 days in July, these clients ordered up around 200 articles, company records show.

Internal documents show how much influence the clients have. “The clients pay us to produce a certain amount of copy each day for their websites,” said one “tool kit” for new writers. “In some cases, the clients will provide their own copy.”

John Tillman, an activist who once led the Illinois Opportunity Project and whose other groups have paid Mr. Timpone’s companies hundreds of thousands of dollars, said in an email that some of the payments to Mr. Timpone were to underwrite his news operation. Mr. Timpone, he said, allows “community leaders and influencers” to “pitch (not ‘order’) story ideas.”

Mr. Ashkar, the Locality Labs executive, said the sites wrote more about Republicans because they, unlike Democrats, talked to the reporters. “It’s like covering a beat, right? You’re a journalist,” he said. “They make relationships with people, and then they’re trusted and then they write stories about them.”

He said he didn’t find the sites’ focus on certain politicians unusual.

“Go look at The New York Times. It’s all about Trump,” Mr. Ashkar said. “How’s that any different?”

Jeanne Ives, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House in Illinois, has had a direct financial relationship with the operation.

Ms. Ives has paid Mr. Timpone’s companies $55,000 over the past three years, according to state and federal records. During that time, the Illinois sites have published overwhelmingly positive coverage of her, including running some of her news releases verbatim.

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Credit…Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times, via Associated Press

In an interview, she said her payments were to create her website and monitor her Wikipedia page. One $14,342 payment included the note “Advertising-newspaper.” Ms. Ives initially could not explain why. She later called back to say Mr. Timpone had bought Facebook ads for her.

Asked if she was paying for positive coverage, she replied: “Oh, no, there’s none of that going on. I assure you. Oh, my gosh, no. Oh, no, not at all.”

Ms. Ives is listed as a “story watcher.” She said she did not know why.

In March, Monty Bennett, the hotel magnate, faced a crisis. The coronavirus had halted travel, and his company, Ashford, which oversees more than 100 hotels, was facing big losses. So he ordered up a news article.

“I want to push our government to go after China. Why should this murderous regime be let off the hook while we suffer,” said a story pitch attributed to Mr. Bennett on the publishing tool behind Mr. Timpone’s sites.

The pitch resulted in an article that repeated his claims on DC Business Daily, which appears to be a straightforward business and politics news outlet in Washington.

“A national hotel chain executive said he is fed up with the way the United States is dealing with China in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic,” the article began. There was no disclosure that Mr. Bennett had ordered it.

Mr. Bennett, a major donor to President Trump, also used the sites to lobby for a stimulus bill to help his company, according to documents. Mr. Bennett posted a link to one of the articles on Twitter.

Ashford received around $70 million in federal loans intended for small businesses, making the publicly traded company the single largest recipient of such loans — and Mr. Bennett the subject of national anger.

In response, P.R. professionals began ordering positive articles about him on Mr. Timpone’s sites, according to records in the publishing system. Eventually, Mr. Bennett returned the federal money.

But he was not done using Mr. Timpone’s sites. Now Mr. Bennett owed money to creditors. One pitch attributed to him in the publishing system instructed a reporter to call one of his creditors and ask, “Why did you say you were going to help, but then don’t help?”

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Credit…Milken Institute, via Youtube

A site called New York Business Daily ran the article, saying the creditor was squeezing the finances of a struggling Manhattan hotel.

What the article didn’t mention: Mr. Bennett owned the hotel and dictated the article.

His spokeswoman said in a statement that Mr. Bennett “has no relationship with the websites.” She added that he had spoken to numerous news outlets “to obtain economic aid for the hotel industry.”

After The Times presented evidence that he directly ordered articles, lawyers representing Mr. Timpone sent The Times a cease and desist letter, demanding that it not publish the information.

Ben Decker, Jacob Meschke and Jacob Silver contributed reporting. Data analysis was contributed by Kellen Browning, Mariel Wamsley, Emile Robert, Elaine Chen, Ellie Zhu and Lindsey Cook. Susan Beachy, Kitty Bennett and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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