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March 14, 2024, 9:46 a.m.
Business Models

A company linked to a large “pink slime” network is being hired by big publishers like Gannett

An executive from a company associated with Metric Media was hired to teach journalism, but the story doesn’t end there.

The largest newspaper chain in the United States has an ongoing business relationship with a company linked to a sprawling network of over a thousand “pink slime” publications — sites that profess to be local but have no local staff and do not disclose funding they’ve received from political sources.

A Gannett spokesperson confirmed the company has a contract to produce “advertorial content” sourced from Advantage Informatics, a blandly named company founded by Brian Timpone, a conservative businessman and former TV reporter based out of Chicago. (Timpone’s name may be familiar to readers who remember the Journatic scandal of 2012, or to those who have followed the Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s extensive research on “pink slime” sites.)

The ongoing relationship between Gannett and the Metric Media network came to light due to a controversy over the hiring of an Advantage Informatics executive, Kyle Barnett, at Tennessee Tech University, a public research university that enrolls around 10,000 students a year. Barnett’s hiring at the university was first reported on December 14, 2023, by the progressive website Raw Story.

In a follow-up story, Raw Story published Barnett’s TN Tech application and offer letter, which it obtained via public records request. The documents show Barnett was offered the position of non-tenure-track journalism lecturer at a 9-month salary of $50,250.

The application also shows that, beginning in 2011, Barnett was an employee of Advantage Informatics. While Raw Story focused its reporting on Barnett as “a leader of a reported pink slime publication” called the Mount Vernon News (a publication purchased by Metric Media, LLC in 2020 where Barnett is, as of this writing, listed as the only editorial contact), I was more intrigued by how he described his role at Advantage Informatics and the company’s relationship to the broader Metric Media network.

My follow-up reporting uncovered how Advantage Informatics, a company with numerous and previously overlooked linkages to a vast network of “pink slime” sites, is also working with major U.S. media companies like Gannett and is buying and selling local print newspapers.

“We can also offer dedicated beat reporting”

Advantage Informatics shares an IP address with a number of Metric Media–affiliated websites, said Pri Bengani, the Tow Computational Journalism Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, who has spearheaded much of the Center’s “pink slime” research.1

“There are about 1,200 news websites operated by this convoluted network of networks,” Bengani told me. “While there are distinct corporate entities, they share technical infrastructure, writers, stories, and executives. To add another layer of indirection, outside the companies that directly claim to operate various websites, there are entities like Pipeline Media (formerly Journatic and Locality Labs), Interactive Content Services, Newsinator, and Advantage Informatics that offer a range of editorial services from submitting FOIAs, to processing public to copyediting.”

In Barnett’s Tennessee Tech employment application, he wrote that he first started working at Advantage Informatics in 2011 and became the director of product development in 2015.

From that application (highlighting is mine):

The site describes some of its services:

With the demands of the 24 hour news cycle in full effect in all newsrooms, those demands to put out monthly, quarterly or yearly special or recurring newspaper sections may have to wait until the last minute.

Let us take that newspaper section off your hands, whether it is a once a year regional magazine or a weekly lifestyles, sports section or classifieds, we have a dedicated editorial team waiting to fulfill content orders and design your newspaper section/standalone product from the ground up and get it to you days ahead of printing for a full proofing process.

We can also offer dedicated beat reporting whether it is providing local game results for prep and community sporting events to covering city council and school board meetings via streaming service or even keeping a close eye on your elected representatives in the state or national capitals.

Advantage Informatics’ website lists some of its clients. Among them are the West Virginia Record, the South East Texas Record, and the Madison-St.Clair Record, which are all part of Timpone’s Record Network.2

Advantage Informatics also shows legacy newspapers among its clients: Two Gannett properties (the Austin American-Statesman and the Arizona Central), the Hearst-owned Houston Chronicle, and the San Diego Union-Tribune, which Patrick Soon-Shiong sold to Alden Global Capital in 2023. (The Houston Chronicle and San Diego Union-Tribune were also Journatic clients in 2012 and 2013.)

The work samples shown on Advantage Informatics’ site are generally inserts about topics like real estate and cars, or advertising supplements. For instance, there is an insert for the Austin American-Statesman from May 2019, the year GateHouse Media bought the newspaper and Gannett. (GateHouse had a prior business relationship with Journatic, which it ended in 2012.) Other examples, such as newspapers created for the West Virginia Record and the Madison-St. Clair Record, are editorial.

In his application to TN Tech, Barnett noted that he’d previously worked as a lecturer at two other universities: Grambling State University in Louisiana, and Oklahoma City Community College. Barnett’s employment application from Oklahoma City Community College, which I acquired through a public information request, cites two companies he developed and implemented editorial strategies for while at Advantage Informatics: The Austin American-Statesman, and the Houston Chronicle.

A Gannett spokesperson told me that the company works with Advantage Informatics on “advertorial” content. When asked about Advantage Informatics’ relationship with the broader Metric Media network, the spokesperson said, “Ethics and our values are priority for us.”

Nancy Meyer, the president and publisher of the Houston Chronicle, told me in a written statement that the paper has “no record of doing business with Advantage Informatics.”

Advantage Informatics also employs writers whose content has run in publications that are affiliated with the Metric Media network but are not publicly listed as Advantage Informatics clients. Barnett’s byline has appeared, for instance, in the Mojave Sun, a Metric Media property, and in the Southeast Texas Record, a website that is a part of The Record network.3

“After a month of doing freelance work through Advantage Informatics, I got promoted to an actual writer role last week!” one young journalist tweeted in 2021. She linked to a story on Austin Journal, which is published by “Pipeline Advisors LLC” — another Timpone-affiliated company.4

“Oversaw the acquisition of two newspapers”

Advantage Informatics does not just provide editorial services. It’s also bought and sold local newspapers that have been publicly linked to the Metric Media network.

A paper that matches the “struggling publisher” description is the Kern Valley Sun in Lake Isabella, California, which Metric Media, LLC, acquired in August 2020. An article that was published on August 5, 2020, and that can no longer be found on Kern Valley Sun’s website, includes the following:

“We are on a mission to revitalize community news across the country,” Kyle Barnett, general manager of Metric Media, said. “The Smiths did a wonderful job. We are honored to bring the Sun to the next generation of readers and advertisers.”

The Kern Valley Sun announced that Brian Timpone had sold the paper on December 20, 2023.

“Having people on the ground will be a big asset for the Sun, its readers and provides a solid future,” the article quotes Timpone saying. “Kern County Media, LLC is happy to have played a role in the growth of news in the area.”

A similar article was published three days prior in the Mount Vernon News in Mount Vernon, Ohio:

“Our corporate mission is to re-build community news in America,” Kyle Barnett, general manager at Metric Media, said. ‘We believe Mount Vernon is a great place to start.”

“I am not and have never been employed as general manager or any other role with Metric Media,” Barnett told me in a written statement. “Editorial production for that company and its affiliated publications has been under the oversight of other executives and editorial professionals since its inception, not me.”

“I did no work with the Mount Vernon News from shortly after its takeover in August 2020 until mid-2023 when I returned as a consultant for a short time and then afterward only as an occasional contributor,” he added. “I served as a consultant in the role of interim publisher only during a two-week period in August 2020 after the publication’s previous owner went out of business and Knox County Media, LLC purchased its assets.”

Knox County Media, LLC is listed as the operator of the Mount Vernon News on its privacy policy page. Corporate records for Knox County Media, LLC list Brian Timpone as a director.

“We don’t believe that there’s an advantage to having full-time staff locally doing the editorial the way they were doing it,” Timpone told Kenyon College student newspaper The Kenyon Collegian in 2020. “What happens is you get less and you pay more, and you have less flexibility.”

The Collegian article noted that all print issues of the Mount Vernon News would now “be provided by Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the country.” (A Gannett spokesperson told me the company “has no record of Mount Vernon News as a commercial print or distribution customer.”)

“We’ll need the support of the community, but we want to make a journalism hub,” Timpone told the Collegian. “There’s no better place to learn how to become a reporter than in a smaller town…I say to [concerned community members], you don’t have to be concerned. You just have to trust me based on our actions.”

Timpone did not respond to requests for comment. Barnett did not respond to follow-up questions about his work at Advantage Informatics and its relationship with the Metric Media network. TN Tech defended its decision to hire Barnett.

“Mr. Barnett was hired by Tennessee Tech University following a background check, interview process and his agreement to the university’s conflict of interest and outside employment policies,” TN Tech spokesperson Jonathan Frank wrote in a statement to me. “The hiring committee noted his more-than-15-year work history, including multiple awards from the Louisiana Press Association, roles at various legacy media outlets and previous appointments at two other institutions. The university has no further comment.”

Steven Monacelli is the Texas Observer’s special investigative correspondent and the publisher of Protean Magazine, a nonprofit literary publication. His reporting has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Daily Beast, Wired, and more.

  1. Between 2018 and 2021, Advantage Informatics’ managing partner was Michael Timpone, Brian’s brother, who also previously served as the CEO of the now-defunct company Franklin Archer. The Tow Center identified Franklin Archer as a part of the broader Metric Media network in 2019. Corporate records on the Illinois Secretary of State’s website indicate that Advantage Informatics has also operated under the names “Newsinator” and “Interactive Content Services.” ↩︎
  2. In 2010, Nieman Lab reported on how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nonprofit lobbyist that advocates for business-friendly policies and is an aggressive spender in elections, “invested in its own publishing platform, running a network of local publications (print and online) that focus on legal issues in areas where business interests have been critical of the decisions of local court.”

    These publications — like the Madison-St.Clair Record, the Louisiana Record, and the Southeast Texas Record — are “set in areas where plaintiffs’ attorneys have had success with class-action suits and other litigation.” They are published under a Chamber of Commerce subsidiary called the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, and they do not disclose their link to the Chamber of Commerce on their “About” pages. Timpone told Nieman Lab at the time that the Chamber “is like most media owners — it stays out of editorial operations.” ↩︎

  3. Barnett’s byline has also appeared in the American Catholic Tribune, a site affiliated with Franklin Archer, andthe McLean County Times, a website associated with Local Government Information Services↩︎
  4. It received $57,075 from a PAC primarily funded by Tim Dunn, a Texas oil billionaire who is listed as a director of another Timpone company, Pipeline Media, and who was recently described by Texas Monthly as “the state’s most powerful figure.” ↩︎
POSTED     March 14, 2024, 9:46 a.m.
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