Criminals set to be released into your neighborhood, sparse advertising and contact information, and an alleged teacher with a fake name pledging to teach critical race theory in class.
Those are some examples of what can be found in a series of publications that have been mailed in recent weeks to homes across the state, as well as in McHenry County. They are drawing attention – including from Gov. JB Pritzker – for being politically charged and containing right-wing talking points just a couple months before the November election.
The publications, totaling 34, include the McHenry Times, the Kane County Reporter, Chicago City Wire and the DeKalb Times. They are under the umbrella of a company called Local Government Information Services, or LGIS. It’s unclear whether each title has mailed out newspapers in recent weeks, but they have a presence online.
LGIS, according to its website, aims to be “a real media watchdog” that is keeping tabs on how tax dollars on both the local and state level are being spent.
Those who criticize the company say the mailings spread misinformation and target local residents, such as individual teachers in a community, with hit pieces. Those who support the publications say they are filling a need that counterbalances media bias. Some acknowledge the mailers have a conservative slant.
“All we can do is point out to people that those publications are not what they may appear to be,” said Don Craven, president of the Illinois Press Association. “You’ve got to pay attention to the source of what you’re reading.”
The company was started in the months leading up to the November 2016 election, documents from the Secretary of State’s Office show. Brian Timpone, the founder of Journatic, a media publisher that created automated content and ran into controversy, is listed as the president, records show. Timpone did not immediately reply to messages seeking comment.
Dan Proft, a conservative radio show host who has run for office and been involved in various political organizations, was listed as a principal on the company’s board of directors in 2019, documents filed with the state show. Proft’s current affiliation with the company is unclear and multiple attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
The company’s capital, as of May 31, was more than $10 million, filings from August 2022 show.
While each of the publications’ websites have some locally tied news items, such as agendas for local meetings, much of the content on these websites are identical stories that contain misleading information on a variety of topics. Few of the stories are current and several were published months ago.
The recent print publications feature stories about schools teaching critical race theory, headlines taking shots at Gov. JB Pritzker, and content criticizing the state’s new SAFE-T Act.
One article on the McHenry Times website states two teachers in Woodstock School District 200 who have pledged to “teach Critical Race Theory.” One of the teachers listed has a fictitious name while the other appears to work at a different district.
Another story on the same topic about Harvard mentions another teacher. No one by that name is listed on Harvard School District 50′s website. District officials did not immediately return a call seeking confirmation.
Kevin Lyons, a former editor of the Northwest Herald who is now the District 200 spokesperson, said the district is concerned about the reported inaccuracies but called it “futile to deal with political mailers that aren’t concerned with accuracy.”
“There are credible news outlets that we have professional relationships with; [the McHenry Times] is not one of them,” Lyons said in an email. “I’ve heard no concerns from our stakeholders about anything published in this particular political mailer posing as a newspaper.”
Director of Trusting News Joy Mayer said it’s important to have empathy for consumers trying to discern between what information is real and what isn’t. Sometimes, even being in the news industry, she has trouble doing so.
“I just think all the time about when we talk about people falling prey to disinformation, I think as journalists … we’re quick to judge people who fall for it. We think people should know the difference,” she said.
State Sen. Craig Wilcox, R-McHenry, who has been quoted in a few of LGIS’ publications, said he views the websites as a natural development to counteract what he considers a “slight bias” in the media.
“Do [Proft’s] papers tend to lean with a conservative slant? Absolutely. But there’s just as much media that leans with a left slant,” Wilcox said. “It doesn’t make it not news. It just means you may get an alternative view.”
McHenry County Board Chairman Mike Buehler, R-Crystal Lake, said he was unaware of the mailers. County Board member Jeffrey Thorsen, R-Crystal Lake, who was recently elected head of the McHenry County GOP, said he’d heard about them but had not received one himself and doesn’t feel he has enough information to form an opinion.
Craven said neither the company nor its publications are members of the Illinois Press Association. The postage permit printed on the front of the papers is registered to Paddock Publications Inc., according to a U.S. Postal Service spokesman.
The press association has received inquiries from residents around the state asking about the mailings and how to get them to stop being delivered, Craven said.
“The only advice we can give these folks is to send notes to the website,” Craven said. “I feel their frustration, but there’s nothing the [press association] can do about it.”
Each of the company’s 34 publications has its own URL and website, but they have identical templates. The “About Us” pages, minus a handful that are blank, are all the same too.
The core beliefs of the websites are “in limited government, in the constructive role of the free market and in the rights of citizens to choose the size and scope of their government and what role it should play in their society,” the pages state.
The websites don’t have advertisements, with each page saying funding comes from “advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government.”
Email messages sent to the McHenry Times, the Kane County Reporter and Local Labs, which is a public records company owned by Timpone, went unanswered.
Wilcox said sometimes he gets calls from reporters on retainer with the publications, but doesn’t always know which publication will run the stories.
“[The publications] fill a role, but they fill a role that I wish did not exist,” Wilcox said.
Other officials have taken aim at the publications for spreading what they consider to be misinformation.
Pritzker was asked about the publications at an unrelated news conference on Sept. 8 in Harvey. He called their content “complete hogwash” centered around racist messaging.
“It’s clearly all about the idea that … Black people are threatening your way of life,” he said of the publications. “That’s essentially what [Proft] is putting in these publications. It’s a scare tactic. It’s meant to have people concerned about their safety.”
Pritzker also tied the work to his gubernatorial opponent Republican Darren Bailey, on whose behalf he alleged Proft is working.
Bailey, who on Proft’s radio show has commented favorably about the mailings, could not be reached for comment.
In response to Pritzker’s comments, Proft on his Twitter account challenged Pritzker to name “one specific item in the newspaper you excoriate that is untrue or inaccurate.” He added in another tweet that being called racist by Pritzker is like “being called ugly by a frog.”
With the mailers being sent out just before the November elections, it’s hard to tell how much this kind of content can swing an election, University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor Christopher Mooney said. To Mooney’s knowledge, there’s no empirical data that maps the effect.
“There’s an old saying that half of campaign spending is wasted, but nobody knows which half,” he said.
Wilcox took issue calling the content misinformation, saying it depends on people’s frame of reference.
“What one person claims is misinformation is often based on their reading of something and their life experiences,” he said. “Whether we call it misinformation, a lie, a half-truth, … it comes from a place of understanding that we have a significant difference between the left and the right.”
It’s not uncommon for this type of content to ramp up during election season and then “fade away,” Craven said. The upcoming midterm elections, which, among many races, includes the race for Illinois governor, is Nov. 8.
Craven said it’s “disconcerting” that these mailings are being sent out. Though in a way he considers it a compliment to newspapers, saying imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Mooney went further and called it a “fraud” that is disguising itself as a newspaper.
Ultimately, Mooney chalks the mailers up to money. Money flowing from major political players, such as Pritzker, former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, along with billionaires Dick Uihlein and Ken Griffin, are the reason such mailers exist, Mooney said.
“This is the symptom of the overwhelming amount of money that has gone into the Illinois political system in the last 10 years,” Mooney said. “The point is they’re trying to increase the legitimacy of their messages by pretending they’re in journalism.”