It's been more than four years since we first had the misfortune to come into contact with the concept of "fake news." Of course, fake news hasn't gone anywhere since then. In fact, it's developed better disguises, including trying to look like local news. A New York Times investigation recently found more than 1,000 sites purporting to report on local happenings around the country, with more than a dozen "covering" Massachusetts. GBH News' All Things Considered host Arun Rath discussed the issue with Dan Kennedy, a GBH News contributor and Northeastern University journalism professor. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Arun Rath: I'm really fascinated by this. I've been looking at these sites, and they look really real. They're not like other things I've seen before where it's clear a bot has written it, where it sounds like the language is like one of those Nigerian scam emails. So what what is up with these? Who is behind these?

Dan Kennedy: Well, this isn't really fake news so much as what I call and what people have been calling for quite a while "pink slime journalism." The stories are factual in most cases, but they are produced by a network that's controlled by a guy named Brian Timpone, who is doing business with pretty much exclusively Republican candidates and causes, and getting money for it. So what this is really about, essentially, is pay to play. Not to single out the Republicans exclusively, but this seems to be primarily a Republican phenomenon.

Rath: There were some Democratic sites like this, too, and wherever they're from, they don't come across like the Fox News site. They don't come across as screamingly partisan.

Kennedy: No, they don't. But as I said, the main problem with these is that they are pay to play. There was an example given in the New York Times story of a congressional candidate in Illinois who had paid $55,000 to one of Timpone's operations, and as you might expect, she got extremely good coverage. When the Times contacted her, she said oh, that was actually for web services and Facebook ads, it wasn't pay to play. But essentially, she's still admitting to doing business with the owner of these news sites and the result is right in front of everybody's face.

Rath: Are these businesses in it for dollars, for a profit, or are there political motivations somehow at play?

Kennedy: Well, I think it's a combination of both. I don't know whether Timpone would do business with Democrats if he thought it would make him money, but he is definitely focused on Republicans. He's been around for quite a while. There was an exposé done on him by This American Life eight years ago when he was running a company called Journatic that used out of state and in some cases out of country reporters under fake bylines, supposedly writing local news stories. So this is yet another business opportunity that he has identified. And unfortunately, because of the ongoing demise of real local news in the country, there's a real void that he's trying to fill, except that he's filling it with pink slime rather than meat and potatoes.

Rath: If you look at some of the names of these sites — names like Baystate News, Bristol Reporter, Massachusetts Business Daily — they look as legitimate as any other news site. What are the ethics here? Should there be some truth in labeling in terms of what people are getting when they're clicking on these sites that look like proper newspapers?

Kennedy: There should always be disclosure. Our audience deserves to know where we're coming from. I think a parallel to this is Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting. When you go to Fox News, you know exactly what you're getting. There certainly isn't any lack of truth in advertising there. But Sinclair Broadcasting owns many local TV stations around the country and they inject quite a bit of right-wing commentary into local newscasts, and viewers have no idea that they're looking at something that is partisan and opinionated. They think they're just getting their local news. So I think that the operations that we're looking at here, with these 1,300 or so sites that Timpone controls, it's very much the same thing. You can go to a number of conservative websites and you know what you're getting. But here, you think you're getting straight-up local news and you're actually getting it with a twist, with a sleazy pay-for-play angle built into it besides.

Rath: There's also with Fox News a premium subscription model, right? You can pay some extra dollars and join Fox Nation, I think it's called. And that seems like there's some overlap with this kind of model.

Kennedy: I'm not aware that Timpone has a premium side to what he's doing. I thought they were all free sites, but certainly he wants to pull you into his orbit for politics and profit, and he's been fairly successful in doing it. I think the Times story was an unusually good and deep dive, but this has been around for a while, and yet the network continues to grow.

Rath: You've written a lot about the decline of local news coverage. Is there a better solution here to fill that space? Clearly there's a void there, and people want that void filled. Why can't we do it with good old fashioned real local news?

Kennedy: Well, we can, and in many cases we are. But the challenge in reviving local news legitimately is that it's a really long, tough slog and it's generally done community after community with each city or town coming up with its own solution, whether it's for-profit or nonprofit or even partly volunteer or co-op. You can't develop a network of 1,300 sites overnight if you're going to do it the right way. You need a source of funding that is either going to demand immediate profits, and we've seen that with projects like Gannett and Gatehouse and Patch, etc., or you need some sort of questionable funding, such as the Brian Timpone model. I am a thoroughgoing optimist about the future of local news, but as I said, it's a long, hard slog, and what these sites are doing is kind of the easy way.