An Illinois PAC decides to get into local news—just in time for the primary

Dan Proft of Liberty Principles PAC, during a debate between the Illinois Republican candidates for governor in 2009. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

When reports first surfaced that a Republican PAC was spending money on his behalf, Chris Harris wasn’t happy. Harris, a Democrat running to unseat an incumbent in today’s primary for a state legislative district just west of Chicago, put out a statement disavowing the support and distancing himself from Bruce Rauner, the state’s Republican governor, who has backed the PAC.

But when the fruit of some of the PAC’s spending became apparent, Harris didn’t seem to mind. The West Cook News, a new local “newspaper” in western Cook County, offers short stories on school boards, pet safety, and infrastructure reports—oh, and front-page editorials blasting his opponent, Chris Welch, along with lengthy looks at years-old accusations against Welch. The paper’s print version is funded by Liberty Principles PAC, which is run by Dan Proft, a conservative radio personality and Rauner ally.

Harris, though, doesn’t see a problem with it. “The coverage of this race is just a small component of that paper,” he told me, adding that the PAC-funded paper was no “opinion rag.” (Welch did not return telephone calls seeking comment.)

Not everyone agrees. But whatever you make of it, if the paper and a group of others launched at the same time do stay around—and Proft said they will—they seem like a notable development: the revival, at the hyperlocal level, of the partisan press. Or maybe we should call it the PAC press now.

In many ways, the papers function as standard election mailers. They are delivered by mail to registered voters and left in high traffic areas for people to pick up; support for Harris notwithstanding, the favored candidates are largely Republicans.

In addition to coverage of the campaign, they provide standard community news (such as an adult-themed Easter Egg Hunt) and updates on the minutiae of library boards and zoning boards. They have also published stories on local pensions and property taxes—some bland, and others more pointed or one-sided, with an emphasis on runaway spending. 

Proft, who once ran for governor himself, is upfront that he has an agenda. He said the papers are designed to cover issues ignored by other media and also to influence policy and elections. In an interview, he defended the integrity of the content in the publications, even as he argued against the basic idea that journalism could be objective or disinterested.

“You tell me if those are slanted or unfair stories or stories not properly sourced,” he said. “If you think because I’m a conservative that it’s right-wing propaganda, I will let the work product speak for itself.”

Mainstream news outlets “pretend that they are just objective scribes detailing the passing scene, and they’re not,” he continued. “Everybody has a perspective. Everybody has an agenda. I’m transparent about mine.” (And, as he told the Daily Herald, the leading daily devoted to the region: “If another candidate doesn’t like our newspaper, they can start their own.”)

If Proft’s motives are clear, the source of the content is a little less so. The “About Us” section of the online version of the papers credits Locality Labs, which according to Bloomberg publishes Blockshopper, an online real estate and data news site. A web search for Locality Labs leads to the site for LocalLabs, the corporate descendant of the troubled hyperlocal content creator Journatic, which is owned by the media entrepreneur Brian Timpone.

Some content on the websites is directly attributed to LocalLabs News Service, including a story in the McHenry Times that describes government pensions as “at best, despicably exorbitant.” But Ben Ashkar, chief operating officer for LocalLabs and a former account executive with Journatic, said the PAC is not a client of the company. (He didn’t reply to a follow-up questions about why the sites cite Locality Labs.)

Meanwhile, Proft told me that a separate company, Newsinator, is responsible for the content. Little is known about Newsinator, whose registered agent in Illinois is Andrew J. McKenna Jr., the former chairman of the state Republican Party.

In another wrinkle, the publications have recently been the subject of complaints to the state board of elections. At a hearing Monday, the board did not find that the PAC had engaged in illegal coordination with the candidates it is supporting. But it did find that better attribution of the connection between the PAC and the newspapers was needed, said James Tenuto, assistant executive director of the election board.

Scott L. Althaus, a political science professor and director of the Cline Center for Democracy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said it’s hard to know how effective the papers might be in achieving their goals. Mainstream media outlets, after all, know all too well the declining influence of print, and it’s hard to see the digital version of West Cook News catching on in a big way.

On the other hand, there is not a lot of coverage of individual local legislators from other sources, and people tend not to know much about these campaigns. There may be an opening to reach some voters. 

Madeleine Doubek, chief operating officer for ReBoot Illinois, worries that most readers will not make the connection between the PAC and what they are reading.

“This looks to me like very questionable and not professional journalism,” Doubek said. “I’m not seeing any bylines. There’s not the balance there in the stories that I’ve seen or all sides of the story. It looks to me like a piece of campaign literature masquerading as a newspaper.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.