On several occasions in October, Donald Trump tweeted links to stories at Prntly.com, a blog that didn’t exist during the last election cycle. One story (now offline but copied here) indicated that Trump’s support from blue-collar workers was the highest since Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.
It'’s not clear what the basis for the claim was beyond that Trump led in Rust Belt states — like Ohio, which he lost — but, no matter. Trump was enthusiastic.
Prntly popped up again last week as the source of a rumor about the Ted Cruz campaign. The site cut and pasted an old story about Cruz’s campaign manager, Jeff Roe. The headline suggested that perhaps Roe had approved the ad attacking Melania Trump run by an anti-Trump super PAC, but it offered no evidence to that effect.
It was, in other words, a very typical Prntly article: Mostly content from somewhere else with an unabashedly pro-Trump frame overlaid, and then shared by one of the site’s two apparent authors, Connor Balough or Shelby Carella.
The site itself, as it turns out, is a near-perfect reflection of the candidate that it loves. It, too, started out as a business that had nothing to do with politics. It, too, proclaims that it is the best. And it, too, is not afraid to just say anything that it feels like and hope that people flock to it as a result.
In its original iteration, Prntly was a printing business, founded by a guy from Albany named Alex Portelli. Portelli, 27, has run or currently runs a number of small businesses, including a coffee shop in Albany, something called Manhattan ATM and, of course, Prntly, which is based in New Hampshire, although Portelli now lives in Colorado.
A few years ago, Portelli was arrested for selling ecstasy in Upstate New York and sentenced to prison. It was there, he wrote in a blog post a few years ago, that he embraced libertarianism.
“[D]uring my time I read,” he wrote. “I read hundreds of books. And my libertarian principles were only reinforced.” That mentality was reinforced after spending time in the Live Free or Die state, about which he was effusive. “[T]hough nowhere is perfect,” he wrote, “An even slightly libertarian society like New Hampshire is far more perfect than Albany right now.”
That visit was after his parole in September 2012. The following March, he decided to run for mayor of Albany. This was unlikely under normal circumstances, but it was made more complicated by the fact that he was still under correctional control as a parolee and therefore unable to vote. “Candidate's unusual hurdle: Parole,” the Albany Times-Union wrote, detailing Portelli’s struggle to get on the ballot. Eventually, he gave up the fight, and his mother, Theresa Portelli, replaced him on the ballot. (Theresa also ran for state comptroller on the Green Party ticket in 2014.)
Last March, a Web developer named Josh Barton helped Portelli set up websites for both Prntly and Portelli's donut-and-coffee shop in Albany, Portelli's Joe n’ Dough Cafe. The site for Prntly listed a New Hampshire address and boasted of a “POLITICAL SEASON SALE.” In a news release last October about Portelli giving $10,000 to a random person in Central America, the site bragged that it was “serving several presidential campaigns at the moment.” (There were no payments to Prntly from presidential campaigns in the last half of 2015.) Despite not being registered as a business in the state of New Hampshire, Prntly’s partner-program page bragged that it was “America’s Number 1 Printing Company.”
By December, it added another unsourced accolade, according to an image posted on Facebook: “#1 News Website 2015.”
The content at the site is mostly a mix of political stories, almost all offering views supportive of Trump or in opposition to Cruz. Many are filed as being “Prntly exclusive,” despite the articles obviously not being exclusive. (For example, this story about Trump visiting the RNC on Thursday.) Some lift copy from other websites. At writing, one of the most recent articles is titled, “New Trump political ad by independent group in Wisconsin wins over new voters.” That claim about winning over voters is attributed to “independent auditing firm AMP Calypso” which gave Trump’s ad “94%, the highest ranking a political ad in Wisconsin has received in 2016.”
AMP Calypso is a company that takes its name from its owner, Alexander M. Portelli. (The article identifies the “conductee” of the survey as “Andrew Portacelli.”) In addition to rating political ads, AMP Calypso also at one point operated an ATM at a local diner.
When reached by email, Portelli said that Prntly now gets about a million visitors a month. On his personal Facebook page, which prominently displays a “Gary Johnson for President” banner, Portelli bragged about having 2,000 visitors a minute on March 27, making the site “a major media outlet.” (This post appears to have been deleted shortly after we contacted Portelli.) An ad that was posted to Prntly’s Facebook page indicated that the site gets “800,000 views a day.”
Portelli indicated that Prntly-the-print-business is still functioning — though the Prntly.com URL forwards directly to the blog. “I still personally do print brokering for a lot of liberty folks and free-staters in New Hampshire,” he said. “The blog is still technically a side piece of that and was just a way for anyone to sound off on something.”
The site’s pro-Trump tilt has apparently led to some speculation that it’s linked to the campaign. (In March, the site’s Facebook page mocked an image suggesting such a link.) There’s no evidence to that effect. Portelli’s involvement in New Hampshire libertarian politics suggests that he might perhaps have run into Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, when Lewandowski was working for Americans for Prosperity there. By email, Lewandowski indicated that he didn’t know Portelli. (Portelli, who declined to speak by phone, stopped responding to emails before this topic came up.)
One reason that the site might lean Trump is that, in Portelli’s words, there is no editorial process. “People sign up and write pretty much whatever they want,” he told us. He claims to have a series of authors writing for the site, although most posts appear under Balough’s or Carella’s names.
Barton, whose Twitter background image is Trump’s tweet of the “blue collar” article, is clearly actively involved in the site. He regularly tweets Prntly articles and, in one deleted Facebook conversation on Portelli’s page, discusses writing for the site. In a news release from last autumn, a new contributor is welcomed to the Prntly team and the site’s “managing director” is listed as “J Barts.” (By email, Barton said that “prntly is not my sole source of revenue, as I am simply the software developer.” He didn’t respond to a question about whether he wrote for the site.)
Portelli also has other alter egos. His long essay about becoming a libertarian is written under the pseudonym “Libertarian Troll.” A comment on that post referring to the commenter as the author links to the Facebook page for “Alexander Matthews,” an apparent reference to Portelli’s middle name.
What’s interesting about “Alexander Matthews” is that the Facebook profile uses an image of Bernie Sanders as its avatar. That’s probably because the account largely links articles to another site, MarshallReport.com, which appears to use the same infrastructure as Prntly — but focuses on liberal politics, not conservative ones. (Both the MarshallReport.com and Prntly.com domains are registered to Portelli.) On that site, the “alex” author page is linked to the name “John Marshall.”
It seems, then, that Portelli finally hit on a money-making scheme that worked. Grab content from other sites, slap on a provocative headline, push it out. In another election cycle, the sketchy sourcing and dubious conclusions the site puts forward might simply be ignored — much less by a presidential candidate. In the year of Trump, though, Prntly has overcome those limitations.
Sort of like the candidate it fervently supports.
Correction: Portelli clarified by email that a writer he had referred to was not a reference to "Connor Balough," so that portion has been removed.