Is Courier Newsroom really fighting fake news?

Journalists who have worked at Tara McGowan’s news outlet say the ideals it publicly professes are a far cry from reality

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From our February 2024 issue

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“We are not the Fox News of the left,” says Tara McGowan. “We are legitimate journalism.” We are sitting in the lobby bar of the Edition Hotel in Manhattan as McGowan tells me about Courier, the network of local-news outlets she founded in 2019 after a successful career in Democratic politics.

Courier, in McGowan’s telling, “is a network of pro-democracy newsrooms across the country that reach passive news consumers where they are with good factual local news and reporting.” McGowan rejects allegations that Courier is a partisan political operation masquerading as a news outlet. Courier isn’t pro-Democratic Party, she says. It’s…

“We are not the Fox News of the left,” says Tara McGowan. “We are legitimate journalism.” We are sitting in the lobby bar of the Edition Hotel in Manhattan as McGowan tells me about Courier, the network of local-news outlets she founded in 2019 after a successful career in Democratic politics.

Courier, in McGowan’s telling, “is a network of pro-democracy newsrooms across the country that reach passive news consumers where they are with good factual local news and reporting.” McGowan rejects allegations that Courier is a partisan political operation masquerading as a news outlet. Courier isn’t pro-Democratic Party, she says. It’s “pro-democracy.” On the basis of that pitch, McGowan, an adept political operator, has raised millions from billionaire donors and grown the company into ten newsrooms across the United States.

Despite the apparent success of Courier, however, journalists who have worked at the outlet say the ideals it publicly professes are a far cry from reality. “What she’s saying is objectively not true,” one former Courier reporter told me. “I know that that’s her line that she uses to justify it and make it seem like it’s a media company. But no. They hired journalists and then gave them explicit instructions to promote Democrats.”

Courier’s newsrooms are mainly based in battleground states. Each site has its own branding, crafted to resemble a local newspaper website. And much like small-town papers, the sites are bare-bones. Content is a blend of cheery updates on Democratic policy initiatives and local news coverage (“These 5 New Hampshire venues offer horse-drawn rides,” reads one story on Granite PostCourier’s newly launched New Hampshire site.) Each newsroom has a handful of staffers on the ground, including reporters, editors and social media correspondents.

McGowan declined to share the traffic of Courier’s sites, dismissing the metric as low priority. Instead, she points to a large audience on social media: 1.8 million subscribers and followers on its newsletters and social media accounts. “We don’t care about traffic because our audience doesn’t read articles on websites,” she said. “Most Americans only read [the] headlines to understand what’s happening.” That discovery encouraged McGowan to pivot Courier’s focus to short-form videos and social graphics that deliver as much information as possible to readers without a click. “It really is about passive consumption because that’s where our audience is.” McGowan says the business is profitable.

The idea for Courier was born out of McGowan’s view, held since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, that liberals had been asleep at the wheel as the right built up a massive partisan information machine that operated outside the Republican Party but helped achieve its goals. Talk radio and Fox News, she concluded, had paved the way for a large digital ecosystem of websites like Breitbart that helped catapult Trump to the White House — at no cost to his campaign. That ecosystem dominated news feeds, reaching and motivating Americans with little interest in politics, creating a powerful movement for Trump. Disinformation and extremism, McGowan says, thrived.

When Trump was elected on razor-thin margins in a few swing states, McGowan started raising the alarm. At the time she was a young veteran of former president Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign with sharp insights on what had gone wrong in 2016. Her ideas for how to beat Trump online attracted big donors, and by 2020 her political outfit Acronym had $100 million to spend — courtesy of, among other major donors in Democratic politics, LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman and Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’s widow. David Plouffe, who ran Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, served as an advisor for Acronym.

McGowan, thirty-seven, is a good talker. She speaks quickly and persuasively, as if her extemporaneous thoughts have actually been written down, passed through several edits by a team of political consultants and typed back up for her to recite. Her brown eyes grow large when she tells you about one discovery or another that revealed to her the big secret of political messaging. It’s all so obvious — and yet the Democratic Party was missing it.

When Trump and his online army were defeated in 2020, McGowan’s successful digital campaign drew widespread press coverage. “The Democratic operative who beat Trump on Facebook is bracing for the war ahead,” read the headline of one laudatory profile.

The 2020 success also set the stage for her next venture, a network of local newsrooms that would deliver quality information to voters who lacked it. The premise of Courier was a compelling one for Democrats disillusioned by the appeal of Trump: local news is dying, leaving so-called news deserts where on-the-ground journalism has vanished and been replaced by an endless stream of fake news and partisan slop on platforms like Facebook.

Courier would serve as an antidote, serving up quality local news with a progressive bent.

With financial backing from the likes of Hoffman and George Soros, Courier launched its first local newsroom, Virginia’s Dogwood, with plans to bring similar outlets to other battleground states across the country. At the time, there was little ambiguity about the purpose of this effort. McGowan wrote in a private memo in 2019 that Dogwood “will not only function to support the flipping of both State House and State Senate chambers in Virginia this November, but will serve as a vehicle to test, learn from and scale best practices to new sites as we grow.”

Naturally, a political operative backed by shadowy donors launching a news organization with the stated purpose of getting Democrats elected raised some eyebrows. In the first few years of Courier’s existence, it faced tough questions about its mission. In a Washington Post op-ed, journalist Gabby Deutsch labeled Courier “hyperlocal partisan propaganda.” Politico reported that Courier’s coverage included rewriting press releases from Democratic lawmakers and paying to boost them with thousands of targeted ads on Facebook. On CNN, media reporter Brian Stelter described outlets like Courier as “a big problem.”

In the face of this criticism, McGowan set out to cleanse Courier of its bad reputation. She hired NYU journalism professor and press critic Jay Rosen as a consultant to help with mission statements for each newsroom. In a bid to improve transparency, she published some information about funding on Courier’s main site. She restyled the outlet not as pro-Democrat but “pro-democracy.”

“The goal is not to get Democrats elected president,” she tells me now. “It’s to get factual information.” She conceded in our interview that the optics of launching Courier through Acronym were ill-advised. “If I could do anything differently, I would not have been running a $100 million independent expenditure super PAC program against Donald Trump at the same time I launched a progressive news organization,” she said. “That to me felt like very valid criticism.”

Yet in conversations with more than half a dozen former Courier employees — who requested to remain anonymous as many of them remain gagged by non-disclosure agreements — I was told that what McGowan says doesn’t reflect how the outlet actually functions.

The sources described a badly mismanaged company that does in fact operate more like a Democratic propaganda outfit than a real news endeavor.

At the beginning Courier’s mission and the competitive salaries it offered attracted experienced journalists. Those who spoke with me said they believed in McGowan’s effort to combat the rise of right-wing disinformation and fill news deserts.

The reality they faced after joining Courier was different. One former editor said that soon after its launch, “it became exceedingly clear that Courier existed to exploit news deserts and the people who live and work in them. We were duped, and Tara seemed to show no remorse that she was potentially torpedoing the careers of the local journalists she pretended to support.”

“We were all sold this idea that there was going to be this separation between the Democratic money and editorial,” said a former Courier reporter. “But it slipped into Democrat boosterism.”

For a young company, Courier has a remarkable number of ex-staffers. Layoffs and resignations are a frequent occurrence, and former staffers are eager to speak out about Courier’s flaws. Glassdoor, a website that allows employees to leave company reviews anonymously, is filled with excoriations of Courier’s leadership. One particularly bruising review labeled McGowan a “soap-opera villainess.” Another compared her to the rapper behind the infamous Fyre Festival debacle: “Tara McGowan is the Ja Rule of the progressive political world.”

Courier spokesperson dismissed the criticism from former employees, saying, “Two years ago, Courier underwent a restructure and had to sunset positions that were no longer needed in order to create new ones. Understandably, a number of employees who were impacted by those layoffs were upset, and a few have expressed that through negative reviews and baseless attacks on the company.”

“What frustrated me the most is that it felt like sleazy propaganda,” said another former employee. “Unattainable goals and strategy-changes every two to three quarters doesn’t help consistency, and most folks who were there when I was laid off were shocked and unhappy. I wish the journalists the best — they deserve so much more than to be a part of Tara’s grift.”

One former reporter said coverage was regularly pushed to be favorable to Democrats. Citing their newsroom’s coverage of Biden’s infrastructure bill as an example, they said “the way things moved through the editing process, the story became less journalistic and more promotional.” Stories that did not promote Democrats, meanwhile, “kept being put on hold or were spiked.”

A former Courier editor said leadership fixated on subjects that cast the Biden administration in a favorable light. “We were only covering the vaccine when it’s positive, so we can get more people to get vaccinated and make Biden look good,” they said. “I’m 99.9 percent sure that was [McGowan’s] motive. She would never put that stuff in writing or say that, but there were always implications.”

“We were basically just doing an advertising campaign for the Covid vaccine before it even was released,” another former staffer recalled.

Meanwhile, sources said a number of subjects were deemed off-limits because they were not seen as helpful to getting Democrats elected, including stories on racial justice. In one instance, a reporter who covered police brutality against black people was fired. Within the company, it was believed she was ousted because the focus upset donors who didn’t want the Democratic Party to appear anti-police.

Courier spokesperson denied those claims, saying, “We have absolutely never in Courier’s history fired anyone for a story they reported on or published, nor do we, nor have ever allowed any donors or investors to dictate staffing or editorial decisions. Both of those allegations are completely inaccurate.”

The manner in which Courier pursued funding from special interests also raised eyebrows. Some of Courier’s coverage is underwritten by outside backers. A firewall ensures that editorial teams never knew the identity of those funding their coverage of different causes. But it also meant that readers didn’t know either. Unlike many other news outlets that publish coverage underwritten by special interest groups, Courier does not disclose its funders. “Tara was pushed on this consistently by a lot of different people over the years,” a source said, but she refused to add disclosures.

Funders were said to sometimes intervene in coverage. In one instance in 2020 described by a former staffer, an unknown underwriter intervened to spike a piece on a local race. “They showed it to a funder and the funder rejected it,” the staffer said. “Which is never how that is supposed to work in a journalistic organization.” The staffer said that at one point their newsroom was tasked with covering education because Courier was courting the National Education Association for funding. A spokesperson for Courier denied that a funder spiked any story at the outlet: “This never happened.”

“It felt very much like a propaganda outlet,” the staffer said. “We were just there to do campaigns for different causes.”

Another staffer recalled an incident in 2022 in which they were told that a story that reflected poorly on a Democratic Senate candidate “doesn’t serve our audience.” When I asked what they thought the real reason the story was scrutinized, the former staffer said it was “to protect” the candidate.

The staffer quit Courier a few months after that incident. “We were explicitly told it would not be a liberal Fox News, but it was turning into that,” they said.

The high rate of turnover exacerbated concerns about its leadership. “Layoffs are a regular occurrence every January,” a former editor said. So are resignations. The outlet has cycled through at least four top editors in fewer years. (A Courier spokesperson pushed back on claims of high turnover, asserting that, at least in 2023, the outlet had a 93 percent staff retention rate).

Sources said the newsrooms are overworked and undervalued. One year, employees were promised end-of-year bonuses to make up for steep pay cuts. Just before Christmas, however, the bonuses were rescinded and employees were sent boxes of build-your-own cookies instead. “There was a Courier cookie decorating competition, which is the stupidest shit of all time,” one former editor said. “Everyone was just livid,” another recalled. “Everyone lost it.” Top leadership at Courier, meanwhile, pocketed bonuses of more than $7,000 that year, further angering the editorial teams. Those bonuses were described internally as “retention” payouts designed to quell the high rate of turnover. Some of the executives who received them, however, left the company soon afterward.

“For lack of a better word, it was a shit-show,” a former employee said.

Some layoffs made little sense. Sources described a 2022 incident in which a reporter was let go after reporting out a lengthy investigative piece on chemical pollution in Wisconsin. Months later, the piece won a Milwaukee Press Club award. McGowan took to Twitter to celebrate the victory, tagging the reporter she had, just a few months prior, laid off.

The constant turnover and recurrent cost-cutting that have beset Courier are seen internally as partially the result of McGowan’s struggle to lure donors. Unlike campaign-season political operations, convincing donors to invest in a fledgling news business is no easy feat. What’s more, well-heeled Democrats just aren’t loosening their purse strings like they were in 2020, when the threat of a Trump re-election was seen as more imminently dangerous. “The fundraising on the left is abysmal compared to 2019,” McGowan told me. “People need to understand the threat.”

Courier has sought to solve its fundraising struggles with some novel tactics. It debuted a membership program, the highest tier of which provides members with an exclusive newsletter, invitations to events, and an annual meeting with McGowan herself — all for a cool $25,000 per year (roughly the cost of a 2020 Mercedes A-Class). Courier declined to say whether anyone has paid for the highest tier membership. Courier also put on high-profile events, including an interview between McGowan and Josh Shapiro, shortly before he was elected governor of Pennsylvania in 2022. The events were costly, a source said, and, they believed, did more to promote McGowan than Courier.

“The big story here is just how incompetent Tara is,” the source said. “She’s basically a grifter. She is paying herself hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to run this entity, which she continually runs into the ground.”

“Between the shady backroom politics and the public instances of Tara bashing ‘mainstream’ local news or explicitly supporting Democratic candidates, she time and time again undermined our credibility with our readers and peers,” one editor said.

Among the former staffers, there’s little hope for change at Courier. One contacted me to point out that the new chief political correspondent for Courier’s New Hampshire operation was, as of December 2023, communications director for the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

“It’s frustrating that these powerful people couldn’t just fund journalism without all these strings attached,” said one former Courier reporter. “For all the lip service that liberals make about the value of journalism, here was the opportunity to put their money where their mouths were. Instead, they wanted a return on their investment. They wanted propaganda. It left me really disillusioned with the whole thing.”

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2024 World edition.

Aidan McLaughlin is the editor-in-chief of Mediaite.

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