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Mystery ownership of Sunshine State News identified as CNN, but it's not

TALLAHASSEE — Sunshine State News surfaced in the Tallahassee press center last year as one of many Web-based news organizations covering Florida government. Only the folks at Sunshine refused to disclose the investors financing its conservative-oriented news reports.

For the past year, though, a lengthy "Terms of Use'' agreement posted on Sunshine's website identified Cable News Network — CNN — as its "parent company.''

Officials at CNN are trying to figure out why.

"This doesn't sound right,'' CNN spokeswoman Bridget Leininger said. "We have no business arrangement with them.''

Sunshine State news editor Nancy Smith again refused Wednesday to identify the organization's owners. When told that its website lists CNN as a parent company, Smith said in an e-mail, "I don't know where you see that. I'm looking.''

Shortly after the St. Petersburg Times identified the section where CNN was described as the parent company and another section that said Sunshine was operating in compliance with Georgia laws, the use agreement was changed to remove any reference to CNN or Georgia.

Leininger said CNN lawyers believe someone copied the network's Terms of Service Agreement and failed to remove clauses that mentioned CNN and Georgia. She said CNN lawyers plan to contact Sunshine State News.

The old version of the use agreement can be found with web archive searches like the Wayback Machine ( archive.org/web/web.php), which took snapshots of the Sunshine website ( sunshinestatenews.com) several times over the past two years.

Editors at Sunshine have repeatedly declined to identify the owner of the news service that frequently praises Republican Gov. Rick Scott and routinely trashes Democrats and the mainstream media. Earlier this year Smith praised Scott as a "hero'' and described him as "utterly charming'' in a column critical of the Capital press corps.

A study completed in July by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism ranks Sunshine as the least transparent news website in journalism's new Internet-based landscape. The study found that news websites were more likely to offer balanced news coverage when they were more transparent about funding sources.

Sunshine State News, a Florida corporation, was initially formed by Justin Sayfie, a former staffer of Gov. Jeb Bush who operates Sayfie Review, a website that aggregates news about Florida.

Sayfie was surprised to hear Sunshine's website was identifying CNN as its parent company. He formed the corporation but says he signed it over to Lane Wright, a former reporter for Sunshine who is now Gov. Scott's press secretary.

Wright resigned from Sunshine in April to take the job with the governor as Scott was attempting to remake his image and overcome low poll numbers.

Sayfie said no money changed hands; he just decided he didn't want to pursue the business. He said Wright was the only person he dealt with during the transaction and insists he does not know the identity of the real owners.

Initially Sunshine State News did not post a Terms of Use agreement, but the Wayback Machine snapshot from September 2010 shows the CNN reference on Sunshine's website. It was buried deep in the small print of a six-page agreement that is a routine feature on websites. It provides notice to those who submit information to the news service that they are granting Sunshine and "its parent company, Cable News Network Inc.'' a royalty free perpetual and irrevocable right to use and publish the information worldwide. The agreement also notes that the terms of use are in accord with the law in Georgia where CNN is headquartered.

Mystery ownership of Sunshine State News identified as CNN, but it's not 10/05/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 5, 2011 10:29pm]

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