Tara McGowan
Tara McGowan, at center, is the publisher and CEO of Courier Newsroom. Also pictured are CEO of Adeft Capital Carol Melton and CEO of Voto Latino Maria Teresa Kumar. Chance Yeh/Getty Images for Power 100 Lunch

How a Former Democratic Operative Is Testing the Limits of What a Newsroom Can Be

Courier Newsroom runs sites in political battleground states promising “fact-based, audience-centered journalism.” But undisclosed funders and glowing coverage of Democratic candidates raise questions.

Thousands of North Carolinians — mostly women — were targeted with Facebook and Instagram ads shortly before the last midterm elections that shared a dire message: A little-watched race could determine whether abortion would remain legal in the state.

“Reproductive freedom in North Carolina could come down to this fall’s elections for two seats on the state Supreme Court,” said one post from a state-based news outlet called Cardinal & Pine. Republicans in the state were nearing a supermajority in the legislature, “potentially making N.C.’s high court the last bulwark for abortion rights.”

Cardinal & Pine, which promises readers “fact-based, audience-centered journalism” on its website, boasts as many Facebook followers as the longtime North Carolina newspaper, the Winston-Salem Journal. It employs several journalists and publishes stories ranging from politics to lifestyle content.

However, key facts about Cardinal & Pine and its parent company, Courier Newsroom, go undisclosed. Courier does not disclose that the newsroom is run primarily by former Democratic operatives, including its publisher and CEO, Tara McGowan. It has received funding from groups like the pro-abortion rights Planned Parenthood, which gave $250,000 to Courier Newsroom between June 2021 and June 2022, the year it was promoting content about what the election means for abortion access.

Cardinal & Pine is one of 10 websites in political battleground states run by Courier quietly testing the limits of what a newsroom can be. Courier grew out of a series of explicitly political experiments that hinged on using paid online advertising to turn out voters. It then pivoted to being a privately owned media company that bills itself as a “pro-democracy news network” serving news and lifestyle content to the left. The project has raised and spent millions of dollars since launching its first site in 2019 and has announced plans to launch an additional newsroom in Texas.

But Courier’s undisclosed funders and glowing coverage of Democratic candidates should raise questions about its reliability, said McKenzie Sadeghi, editor at NewsGuard, which publishes trustworthiness ratings for thousands of sites.

“Courier Newsroom sites do not disclose ownership and financing, they do not disclose possible conflicts of interest, nor do they gather and present information responsibility,” Sadeghi told NOTUS.

Courier does not aim to spew misinformation, former employees say. Its articles are usually written by journalists, some of whom have years of experience covering local politics. But in many cases described to NOTUS, Democratic political operatives like McGowan call the shots for Courier.

McGowan’s early pitch for Courier, outlined in a 2019 memo, warned that the “Democratic Party, long reliant on television and radio, is losing the media war.” While Republicans and the right have invested in digital media, Democrats “continue to rely heavily on cycle-driven paid advertising programs to inform and mobilize voters.”

McGowan proposed a new model: Her nonprofit, ACRONYM, had launched a pilot local news outlet in Virginia called Dogwood to help support “the flipping of both State House and State Senate chambers” by writing news content and promoting it to women voters on social media.

Several other media properties soon followed Dogwood in battleground states. The outlets promote lifestyle content — “Where to Hike in Arizona to See Waterfalls,” for example — to help build a following of voters who may not usually be interested in politics and then show them stories about voting and Democratic candidates.

“The goal was to get persuadable voters engaged with unassuming content, then feed them political persuasion content, using underwriters who would pay Courier to come up with the content,” a former Courier employee told NOTUS.

Writ large, Courier Newsroom has spent more than $12 million on ads on Facebook and Instagram since it launched, according to a NOTUS analysis. That number is likely significantly lower than Courier’s total ad spending: Tiktok, where Courier accounts have amassed more than 300,000 followers, does not publicly disclose information about ad spending on its platform.

Courier split away from ACRONYM in 2021. McGowan created a new public benefit corporation called Good Information Inc. that aimed to help “tackle the disinformation crisis,” Axios reported at the time and announced it had raised seed funding from George Soros, Reid Hoffman and a handful of other heavy-hitting Democratic donors.

McGowan made a point of offering transparency when Courier was formed.

“We are disclosing our investors because we believe — especially right now in this environment of mistrust — that transparency is really important,” McGowan said.

Today, Courier’s website says it is “supported by a variety of funding sources, including reader contributions, sponsors and philanthropic and corporate underwriting,” and lists several funders, including Technology for Democracy, a Delaware-based LLC with no website. Courier does not list ties to Soros, whose nonprofit Fund for Policy Reform Inc. gave Courier $2.5 million as recently as 2022.

Other funders, like Planned Parenthood, go undisclosed by Courier and cannot be traced through public records until years after the fact.

A dark money group with close ties to the Democratic Attorneys General Association — including a shared address — called the Progressive State Leaders Committee gave Courier Newsroom $715,000 in 2022 for “content creation and promotion,” tax records show.

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That year, Courier wrote frequently and favorably of a Democratic attorney general candidate in Nevada named Aaron Ford. The stories, including an interview with Ford, were published on a Courier site called The Americano and promoted on Facebook and Instagram.

The interview contained few critical questions.

“How would you as attorney general protect Nevadans’ right to vote and ensure their votes won’t be overturned?” The Americano asked Ford. “What do you think would happen in Nevada if [Republican opponent] Sigal Chattah were to win?” The Americano spent tens of thousands of dollars promoting ads that received millions of impressions online in Nevada, according to Facebook’s online ad tracker.

Courier later published case studies it authored that deemed its work in states like Michigan and Iowa a success. In Iowa, spending $49,000 publicizing stories in the Courier-run outlet Iowa Starting Line resulted in a net increase of 3,300 votes, Courier claimed.

The approach “proves boosted news from local, trusted sources strengthens democracy and fosters greater voter participation,” the post said.

Courier and McGowan did not respond to multiple requests for an interview or written questions for this story. After the 2020 election cycle, Courier defended its approach to the Federal Election Commission when a conservative legal group filed a complaint alleging Courier should have to register as a political committee.

At the time, Courier told the FEC that its ads were meant to promote the content, not the candidates.

“During the 2020 election cycle, Courier produced numerous articles featuring Democratic candidates for federal office, which it paid to promote in the targeted geographic areas corresponding to those candidates’ voting constituencies,” the FEC wrote in its report on Courier. “With respect to the targeted promotion of these articles, [Courier and affiliates] assert that because ‘the revenue model for quality local journalism is in jeopardy[, by] necessity, therefore, Courier Newsroom invests in paid advertising to deliver its news stories to target audiences.’”

The FEC found that Courier qualified as a media organization and was exempt from having to register as a political committee.

An organization like Courier isn’t easily defined in today’s media landscape, said UCLA School of Law professor and election law expert Richard Hasen.

In the digital world, “it’s not like people can figure out what news is by going to their local newsstand,” said Hasen. “If you look at something like Courier, some of what they’re doing looks like it fits into the traditional news function, which I would describe as gathering information, writing it and reporting it out. And some of it looks more like the activities of a political organization.”

Hasen pointed to a potential solution: disclosure.

“If you say, ‘This reporting was made possible through a grant from Planned Parenthood,’ that would be something that people may find useful,” he said.

Maggie Severns is a reporter at NOTUS.