A prominent Democratic strategist is planning a new $65 million effort to push progressive local news around the United States as part of an attempt to match the dominance of right-wing media, Recode has learned.
The organization, whose formation hasn’t previously been reported, is called the Project for Good Information (PGI). It’s being created by Tara McGowan, a Democratic strategist who has spent the last few years at her current organization, Acronym, trying to encourage her party to counter far-right media with liberal content. She has fans among influential Democrats and donors but has also attracted controversy from journalism groups concerned that her advocacy efforts masquerade as unbiased media, as well as from some fellow Democrats who worry that she can push the envelope too far.
McGowan’s new group makes clear, though, that some progressives are prepared to double down on her strategy. Her allies say she is one of the few Democrats willing to fight fire with fire. But PGI wants to “restore social trust” in media, and its critics argue ideological outlets only erode that even further and make the information wars even messier.
This time, however, McGowan is attempting to strip away the partisan ties that have dogged her previous journalism plays, including Courier Newsroom, which her new organization will back. The idea, according to people familiar with the new structure, is to continue creating a media ecosystem without the linkages between those outlets and a political organization like Acronym, Courier’s current backer. A lingering challenge, though, will be how to position the outlets as nonpartisan given McGowan’s background.
“Traditional media is failing. Disinformation is flourishing. It’s time for a new kind of media,” reads the bold, all-caps text at the beginning of a two-page marketing memo for PGI obtained by Recode.
“Recognizing that successful investment in good information online requires trust that must exist outside of politics or partisanship,” the document reads after recalling McGowan’s work at Acronym, “PGI is an evolution of those efforts to tackle the deeper structural issues that contributed to Trump’s election and will outlast him in defeat.”
McGowan declined to comment.
The new push will consist of two entities, according to the document: A 501(c)(3) public foundation called the Good Information Project, which will grant money to nonprofit media companies, and a public benefit corporation (a so-called B Corp) called Good Information Inc., which will invest in for-profit media companies.
Corporate records in Washington, DC, show that a top Democratic attorney previously involved with McGowan’s political work incorporated the Good Information Project in early February.
McGowan is attempting to raise $65 million for the effort this year, with $35 million for the investment arm, $25 million for the foundation, and the remaining $5 million for a two-year operating budget, Recode has learned. Acronym and its affiliated groups have previously had success raising money from leading Democratic donors in Silicon Valley, including LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and venture capitalist Mike Moritz. Former Barack Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, who has his own ties to the Silicon Valley donor world, also advises Acronym.
McGowan has been a controversial figure in Democratic politics ever since news emerged of the link between Acronym and Shadow, the startup responsible for bungling the 2020 Democratic Iowa caucuses. McGowan’s new effort is sure to raise a new round of big-picture questions about the future of Democratic media — and what rules of the road progressives should heed in the post-Trump era.
“PGI is building a new media ecosystem to meet the urgency of this moment. By incubating, investing in and scaling ideas that not only serve the public good, but that drive innovation in content distribution and business models, PGI is building a portfolio of media properties to radically and rapidly improve the way our society values, consumes, and exchanges information on the internet,” the marketing memo reads.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, Acronym also planned to invest $25 million in a progressive news effort called Courier Newsroom, which set up eight different websites with seemingly nonpartisan, homespun names like “UpNorth News” in Wisconsin and “Keystone” in Pennsylvania. The publications routinely featured Democratic candidates in favorable lights, and Courier spent millions to promote the articles in Facebook ads. While Courier websites do note that they are heavily backed by the progressive organization, critics felt the disclosures were insufficient and that the newsrooms functioned more like an arm of the Democratic Party than a traditional publication, further muddying the waters for consumers seeking unbiased information. Acronym has said Courier is “factual and transparently progressive.”
McGowan and her defenders have said that Democrats have ceded this information warfare to the likes of Sean Hannity and Breitbart for too long. If partisan news is going to exist, the thinking goes, Democrats should offer their own instead of depending on nonpartisan media outlets to try to counter the right’s disinformation machine. McGowan has been a particularly harsh critic of Facebook, which she argues has been too soft on conservative media while cracking down on progressive outlets like Courier.
Courier, which now has about 70 people on its editorial staff, is expected to grow thanks to an investment from PGI’s B corporation. It is unclear whether Acronym will sell its ownership stake in Courier to the new group, or what its future holds in a broader sense.
“PGI’s first investment in this arena will be to help scale Courier Newsroom, a network of 8 local online properties that reach subgroups of Americans most vulnerable to disinformation with local, values-driven news and content developed specifically for their social newsfeeds, mobile apps and email inboxes,” the PGI document reads.
McGowan has acknowledged that the criticisms about the previous structure — in which Acronym largely (though not completely) owned Courier — were “fair,” and that a new, nonpartisan structure was needed to protect Courier’s journalists from accusations of political bias. The document refers to McGowan as “a former campaign strategist.”
“In order for Courier to be really successful, it is very important that over time it is not affiliated with a political organization or entity. We haven’t made any decisions related to that yet, but I think that there is a lot of fair criticism that we are reflecting on and thinking about,” McGowan said in an interview with Fast Company published in December.
“We need new business models,” McGowan said with regard to what a revamp of Courier would look like. Now she’s trying to raise $65 million to make that happen in the Wild West that is today’s modern media.