CHICAGO — Upon first glance, the Chicago City Wire looks like any local newspaper. It’s printed on familiar, low-cost newsprint, and lays out a variety of articles, photographs and infographics, many with named bylines or wire service attributions. It’s folded like a traditional tabloid, and even has a high school sports section on the back.
“Real data. Real news,” its masthead reads.
But a closer look at its content and funders tells a different story.
The publication and ones like it, which have flooded thousands of mailboxes in the city and suburbs over the past month, is a product of Local Government Information Services, a Lake Forest-based LLC run by prominent conservative Brian Timpone and associated with conservative radio voice and Republican political strategist Dan Proft. The company is responsible for dozens of conservative news sites across Illinois, from Kankakee to Sangamon.
In a 2017 editorial, Proft identified himself as a principal in the company which owns Chicago City Wire.
The Chicago City Wire print publications include almost exclusively negative stories about Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration, with a sprinkling of positive coverage on the campaign of Pritzker’s republican opponent, Darren Bailey. An August issue hammers COVID-19 school lockdowns, describing “failure” in the Chicago Public Schools system and “plummeting” test scores. A later edition, released in September, focuses on transgender issues.
“No more boys and girls?” one headline reads. “Pritzker family leads push to replace ‘myth’ of biology.”
Two other issues focus on violent crime in the city, including inaccurate information about the Safe-T Act, a criminal justice reform law passed in 2021 which, among other things, eliminates cash bail and has been the subject of a significant misinformation campaign. A particularly striking centerfold includes 36 mugshots of alleged criminals that the publication claims will be released upon the institution of the law. Most of the mugshots depict Black Americans, and all but three appear to be people of color.
“It’s going to be literally the end of days,” the headline reads.
All told, four print editions of the Chicago City Wire have hit mailboxes in the past month, confusing and angering unsuspecting residents who said they didn’t subscribe to the newspapers but assumed the publications were legitimate. The issues are all eight pages long, have color photos and bill themselves as “special editions” focused on schools, sex education and crime.
Nancy Wade, who lives in Lincoln Square, said finding the unsolicited publication in her mailbox made her livid.
“The tabloids aren’t as bad as this. It’s all misleading. If you don’t know much about any of these issues, and this is the first information you ever see, naturally I’d be worried, too,” Wade said. “They are like yelling at you from the page.”
While media law experts said that the publications were protected by the free speech provision of the First Amendment, they agreed that they were essentially political mailers, intentionally disguised as newspapers.
“I don’t call them newspapers for a very good reason,” said Don Craven, president of the Springfield-based Illinois Press Association. “They’re not.”
Craven said that neither the Chicago City Wire, nor any of the other 34 Local Government Information Services publications across Illinois are members of the press association, or have applied for membership.
The state actually has specific guidelines for what qualifies as a newspaper for the purpose of publishing legal notices, Craven said. State law states newspapers must print at regular intervals, for 50 weeks per year, for at least one year to qualify. Chicago City Wire does not print regularly, nor does it produce 50 issues per year.
Alisa Kaplan, who works for the nonpartisan research and political advocacy nonprofit Reform For Illinois, said in an email that although there is a long tradition of politically partisan newspapers, and that the definition of “newspaper” is expanding with the proliferation of online media, Chicago City Wire and other similar publications are misleading readers.
“The mailers appeared during campaign season and will likely disappear after the election; the goal is clearly to get certain people elected or ousted,” Kaplan said. “And they’re designed to look like traditional newspapers for a reason. People associate newspapers with a measure of independence and journalistic standards, and the publishers of these mailers are clearly trying to take advantage of that to make their campaign message seem more credible. That’s deceptive, and it’s disturbing.”
A small box in the lower-right corner of the City Wire’s second page includes a lengthy note from the publisher that states in lofty platitudes the publication’s mission — “to provide news about state and policy matters,” “to foster dialogue” and “to offer quality local content to help you stay abreast of what’s happening in the community you call home.”
“This is a community forum where we speak with you rather than talking at you,” the note reads.
The note also says that the publisher, listed as Local Government Information Services, welcomes editorial feedback via phone or email. But no phone or email is listed in the publication.
“The other problem is transparency,” Kaplan said. “The fact that the publisher doesn’t have to say who their donors are makes matters worse and highlights weaknesses in our campaign finance laws. It’s important for people to know who’s trying to influence them.”
The New York Times highlighted publications like Chicago City Wire in a 2020 article, saying most of the writing was done by freelance contributors across the country, asked to churn out right-leaning articles.
Humboldt Park resident Julie Parizek, who received the mailer at her home, said she alerted everyone she could about the publication, but was still angry about the lack of information.
“There’s no editorial page. There’s no way to contact them. There’s no phone number,” Parizek said. “It says, we welcome your feedback. And you read the fine print and see it’s this LGIS or whatever it is. I don’t know what’s to be done, but I think it’s really bad.”
The publications were mailed using the United States Postal Service permit number 1233. A spokesperson for the postal service, Tim Norman, said that the permit number is registered to Paddock Publications Inc. Public records show that Paddock is the parent company of the Daily Herald, a newspaper in suburban Chicago.
Neither the Daily Herald nor Dan Proft responded to requests for comment, but the Herald announced Thursday that Paddock Publications will no longer print the papers.
Proft, who runs a political action committee called Play By The Rules, has been purchasing television ads in recent weeks to criticize Pritkzer and Democrats who supported the Safe-T Act. The PAC has received money from Republican mega-donor Richard Uihlein, Crain’s reported, although it is not officially affiliated with the Darren Bailey campaign for governor. Uihlein is the founder of industrial supply and shipping distributor Uline.
An eight-page newspaper can cost up to fifty cents per issue to print and distribute, according to Crain’s. It is not known how many issues Chicago City Wire has printed, nor how many subscribers it has.
It is not unusual, nor is it illegal, for politicians on both sides of the aisle to disguise advertising to look like news or newsprint, experts said. In fact, the Pritzker campaign has also run a series of misleading ads on Facebook that present information as if it’s from a publication called “Illinois Daily.” But Kaplan said the difference is that the Pritzker ads boldly identified their funding source, unlike Chicago City Wire and other mailers.
“This use of faux-news is not entirely new,” Kaplan said. “At least those ads said ‘Paid for by JB for Governor’ on them, because they were paid for by his campaign account and were subject to campaign disclosure rules.”
Both Kaplan and Craven said because the publications are protected free speech, the onus falls on readers to educate themselves about the publication’s origins — particularly political mailings like Chicago City Wire, designed to appear like newspapers.
Neither Kaplan nor Craven knew if more were coming. But that, too, is part of the point.
“If you don’t know who it’s coming from, or where it’s coming from, go read something else,” Craven said.
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: