Section: News

Mount Vernon News bought by controversial media mogul

The Mount Vernon News (MVN) announced that internet news network Metric Media LLC purchased the paper in its entirety on Saturday, Aug. 1. 

Businessman and former journalist Brian Timpone purchased the paper after looking for community newspapers upon which to apply his business model. He believes the Mount Vernon News was struggling to stay open for a number of reasons, such as not running advertisements and a severe lack of local content.

In a statement published on Aug. 2, the MVN stated that this new change in leadership would mean a reworking of the paper. These changes include more photos, a new layout, more local and detailed coverage and “deals and specials available from all your favorite local businesses.” The reworked MVN will also include new features and specialized pages, including “unique advertising opportunities,” according to its new leadership. 

But this new leadership may not be as promising as advertised. A number of community members have expressed various concerns at the idea of a major media network taking over their local, independent paper. Metric Media publishers announced the reduction of the print edition from six days a week to only two— Wednesday and Saturday. Kenyon Director for Research and Instruction and Mount Vernon Councilmember Julia Warga worries about the sacrifice of near-daily print editions, which she believes is part of Metric Media’s emphasis on online content.

“Not everybody in town has easy access to the internet,” Warga said. “The loss of [the print edition] can be devastating to some people because this may be their only way to get the news of the town.”

The MVN has been a vital part of the town for decades. It was formed in 1935, when the town’s two competing newspapers — the Daily Banner and the Republican News — consolidated into a single publication. The Culbertson family, who had owned the Republican News, continued to operate the Mount Vernon News for the next 85 years. The paper’s last independent owner, Kay Culbertson, took over operations after the death of her husband in 1992.

Culbertson could not be reached for comment, but issued a statement in Sunday’s announcement.

“I wish you all well and hope you stay safe through these turbulent times,” Culbertson said in the statement. “My hope is that Metric Media will continue the tradition that we have brought to you these many years.”

Metric Media, on the other hand, has a much more recent history. Founded in 2019, the Chicago-based company operates over 1,200 regional and business news websites across the United States. These news sites produce stories by having algorithms draw on sources of public information — such as government spending, business transactions and press releases — to generate stories “automatically customized” for the local community. The Metric Media Foundation’s website states that its platform allows news to be “written and published affordably.”

The company applying this technology — Locality Labs, which Timpone founded — received national attention in 2012 when it was discovered that a sports story had produced fabricated quotes and plagiarized material. At the time, Locality Labs — then called Journatic — worked as a third-party news provider for the Chicago Tribune, an investor in the business, which suspended their relationship soon after in July. The late Chicago Tribune President Vince Casanova cited “serious breaches of the Tribune’s journalistic standards” as the grounds for suspending the paper’s use of Journatic.

Journatic also faced criticism that year when an episode of This American Life reported that the company outsourced writing overseas to the Philippines, Eastern Europe, Brazil and Africa. The stories were then sent to American editors and published with fake bylines. The episode, titled “Switcheroo,” stated that Journatic paid Filipino writers as low as $0.35 to $0.40 per story.

Timpone appeared on the episode. He insisted that the writers in question did not actually write the stories, and were only assembling information. This American Life reporter Sarah Koenig, however, reached out to a Filipino employee in the episode, who said he himself wrote Journatic stories.

Days after Journatic’s suspension from the Tribune, a report from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, located in St. Petersburg, Fla., stated that Journatic used fake bylines on hundreds of stories. Timpone claimed that Journatic had only used alias bylines for stories on BlockShopper, a real estate news and data service. Poynter, however, identified hundreds of fake bylines on a number of websites owned by the Houston Chronicle, which contracted with Journatic.

In response, Timpone said that aliases were used because neither overseas writers nor American editors could claim authorship. He stated that Filipino employees only selected the facts, while American employees only edited the stories.

In 2019, Locality Labs found itself in a complaint filed with the Federal Elections Commission. The complaint stipulated that the Illinois-based Liberty Principles Political Action Committee distributed campaign materials in a format designed to resemble local community newspapers. The materials were produced by Local Government Information Services — a media network co-founded by Timpone — and received content from Locality Labs. The FEC dismissed the complaint for insufficient information.

Despite the controversy, Timpone believes his method, which he will apply to the Mount Vernon News, is the way to keep community newspapers sustainable and profitable.

“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 said. “What happens is you get less and you pay more, and you have less flexibility.”

Mount Vernon residents have expressed concerns about the change, for reasons that go beyond Timpone’s reputation. Warga explained that Mount Vernon City Council often used the print edition to distribute information, such as the dates of public meetings. Such information is also distributed in other ways, but Warga believes that the print newspaper is a major source of information for many community members. 

Timpone says that, although he also wants a print edition of the paper, he believes that it needs to be commercially viable before it can return to an almost-daily print edition. Timpone implores the Mount Vernon community to help the paper reach that point.

“Support the paper. Buy an ad. If you do that, talk to us about what you want and we’ll give you a six-day-per-week paper,” Timpone said. “We could do it in a month if we had support.”

While Timpone was optimistic, Warga shared further concerns about the future of the Mount Vernon News, including the future of the newspaper’s archives, the publication’s building and the status of current employees.

As part of Metric Media’s ownership, the MVN is losing its paywall, making content on the paper’s website available to all readers. Timpone plans to make the print edition’s content different from that available online. The MVN archives will also become accessible for free online.

“We don’t believe in paywall websites for community news,” Timpone said. “Full stop. Everything will be free. Secondarily, the archives will all be free. They have a hundred years of archived microfilm in [the MVN building], and they have all those print editions. So what we’re going to do is digitize them all and put it all online, forever, to protect it.”

Additionally, Timpone plans to renovate the MVN building — located on 18 East Vine Street — in hopes of turning it into a journalism facility and attracting students from local colleges.

“We’ll need the support of the community, but we want to make a journalism hub. There’s no better place to learn how to become a reporter than in a smaller town,” Timpone said.

Timpone also plans on investing heavily in sales and — in addition to the editorial process — outsourcing printing. As part of that, the MVN will no longer be printed in Mount Vernon, as, according to Timpone, doing so was not financially optimal. The printer, he said, did not have enough work to justify owning and maintaining a press. All print issues will be provided by Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the country.

Timpone’s plan to outsource employees could have devastating implications for the MVN’s current staff, who may very well lose their jobs in the middle of a pandemic as a result of the changes.

To increase earnings, Timpone plans on hiring more salespeople in order to support the range of planned new features. He says that the paper will test and implement new ideas — like special sections — that will require sponsorship and a large sales force.

Despite the initial shock, Warga noted that it’s not uncommon for small towns to experience the loss of a local paper.

In response to community concerns, Timpone emphasized that his company is risking their own money and time in the running of MVN.

“The fact that they’re concerned is heartwarming to me. I want them to be concerned. If I was there, I’d be concerned too,” Timpone said. “But I say to them, you don’t have to be concerned. You just have to trust me based on our actions. We’re going to come through and do this.”

Fellow Councilmember Tanner Salyers contacted Metric Media soon after the purchase. He requested that a chief executive of the media company address the Mount Vernon City Council on their intentions for the MVN. Salyers initially received no reply via email, but days later received a call from Timpone.

Salyers asked Timpone to speak to the Mount Vernon City Council. Timpone refused.

“I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one, because I think he thought I asked him to speak at a town hall forum,” Salyers said. “He is not interested in that. What I’m asking him to do is speak at a public committee meeting.”

Salyers hopes to speak to Timpone when he comes to town in September. If Timpone refuses again, however, Salyers will broadcast his refusal publicly.

Despite the potential for layoffs and the controversy surrounding the MVN’s new owners, Councilman Salyers is withholding judgement — for now. He recognizes that print media is being displaced by digital, and that Timpone claims he can turn the MVN around. Nevertheless, he emphasized the paucity of news sources in Mount Vernon.

“If you’re the gatekeeper of our information, and if you’re some guy from Chicago who comes in and buys it up,” Salyers said, “I’m not trying to be that suspicious farm guy, but who the hell are you?”

Editor-in-Chief Evey Weisblat contributed to reporting.

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