Even though she hates this city, Tara McGowan was having fun in June.
She sat in a conference room in a WeWork office with her hands on a table. The CEO of Good Information is an energetic 36-year-old who oversees a mini empire of progressive local news sites.
The New York Times once declared "It's read for political insiders" when it came to the small political website founded by Pat Rynard. It was the eighth in her collection of two- to six-person newsrooms stretching from Arizona to North Carolina.
These outlets are the antidote to bad information because they promote ideas from the ideological right. She thinks she can claw a crumbling back from the brink and get more people to vote by injecting news stories into these feeds. New recruits to the democratic process will lean left according to her.
She was shown how to use Facebook's ad-targeting tools. He wanted to know if a few Iowa Starting Line stories could make a difference in the election. Democracy tends to be roundly ignored when it comes to political contests like primaries.
He was sipping from a giant pink water bottle.
It was three weeks ago. The team got a list of residents in blue-collar counties in the state's east. The hardcore Republicans were cut from the list. An analyst used the app's "lookalike" tool to find other people like them, then bought ads for them in the users' newsfeeds. The ads weren't selling anything, they were just promoting a few stories from the site. He was happy so far. The ad he put in was about a story about Iowa passing 70 new laws this year. It was clicked on by 3.5 percent of the people who watched it. Digital ads work on small margins, anything above 2 percent is reason to be happy.
The experiment was about whether any of the people would show up to vote. The analysts looked into the data after the primary. The cost of the Facebook ads was about what the Democrat spent on the platform. The analysts compared the list of people who voted with the list of people who were targeted. They were able to come back with a win. More people turned out to vote than had been anticipated. They concluded that the ads had worked at a reasonable price. Biden spent more per voter in swing states when he defeated Trump.
Years of work were vindicated by the results. She is fond of using ad platforms to spread news. She was a high-profile figure in Democratic politics because of her data-driven practices and huge sums of fundraised money. She brought her political skills with her when she left that world for journalism.
In its three years of existence, the army of sites has spent at least $5 million on social media. In the first half of this year, she raised 15 million dollars, and she wants to raise more.
Critics don't like what she's up to. Trying to mobilize voters is not something newsrooms do according to the executive director of Americans for Public Trust.
The person doesn't agree. That is the problem, according to her. Her argument is that too many newsrooms have lost their way by using paywalls. About three-quarters of US newspapers have them, which is a rare occurrence a decade ago. Since 2004, more than 2,000 newspapers across the country have closed, leaving scores of Americans without the kind of trusted information that could help them vote. About 80 million people could have voted in the election, but they didn't. She believes that the journalism world should use every possible tactic to get reluctant voters to vote. That idea is breaking the minds of some of journalism's purists, who worry that it could backfire and shatter the public's trust in the press.
There is a tattoo on McGowan's left arm. She asked the former president to write his slogan on her skin, then told him to ink it. A journalism and political science double major, she had worked for Obama as a digital producer on his 2012 reelection campaign and went on to work for other politicians, including as the director of the climate change organization founded by Tom Steyer.
He was willing to try new things. She and many other people thought the left had become too focused on Obama. Acronym was set up to make sure Trump and others like him wouldn't win again. The group came to focus on digital advertising tools and was known for testing which ads worked the best.
She hated the process of raising money and pouring it into last-ditch online ads that were meant to get a few persuadable voters to vote for her. She wanted to make a difference. She and Eli Pariser wrote a report four years ago that argued that the internet was trapping Americans in ideological echo chambers. Democrats were quickly losing power in the United States because they hadn't figured out how to navigate the changing landscape, according to a report. Progressives spent a lot more on TV ads than the right did.
That kind of infrastructure was wanted by the man. She raised money to build a demonstration in Virginia, where Democrats had a chance to take back the legislature. It would be aimed at women living in the suburbs and beyond and could swing elections there.
A mix of politics and lifestyle coverage was started on the site. Americans don't like to read the news and they don't like to read about politics, so researchers had to contend with that immediately.
When I meet up with her at the Generator Hotel in DC, she tells me that factual news information is not reaching her audience. She believes that it is important to chase people wherever they are online. She spoke slowly and opened her eyes wide to make sure I got it.
Critics were angry that a political action committee was masquerading as a journalism outfit. The man was not deterred. She secured more money and launched sites tailored to unlikely voters in other political hot spots.
The newsrooms stayed open until the winter of 2020. Shadow was a campaign tech shop that won a contract to build an app to report the Democratic Party's caucus results. Results were delayed for three days when it failed at the crucial moment. For one thing, she wasn't Shadow's CEO, which she thinks was unfair.
She disliked DC so much that she found few defenders in professional Democratic networks. She thought she got a lesson in how quickly bad information can spread when she heard that she was trying to throw the caucuses for Pete Buttigieg.
She knows she needs to focus. She remembers David Plouffe, Obama's 2008 campaign manager, telling her to learn from the Republicans, because nothing of lasting significance had ever been built from inside the establishment. She took the Courier Newsroom with her after raising a bit of money.
McGowan set about re-booting the Courier. She dug into cleaning up her organization's reputation after accepting that it can't be trusted while being secretive about its donors.
She was involved in a fight with a company. NewsGuard was started in part by Steven Brill, a well-known journalist and founder of Court TV. Red or green ratings were given to online content shops. Brill said at the time that NewsGuard would take on a growing problem that clearly can't be solved by machines.
The Denver Post is a real newspaper and the Denver Guardian is a fake news site, according to Brill's co-conspirators. The Denver Post was a Democratic organ when it was founded in 1892. NewsGuard scores sites on nine criteria to apply a measure of science to that messiness It was only a 57 out of 100. The website fails to adhere to several basic journalistic standards.
The way in which it gathers and presents information, its handling of the difference between news and opinion, how it is financed, who is in charge, and its conflicts of interest were all objected to by them. The sites were given a red rating. The Daily Wire, a site co-founded by a conservative commentator, is one of the better ones. Brill said that The Daily Wire is "fairly explicit about what they do and don't do"
The man wanted another chance. She and Brill were on a call. The meeting turned into a shouting fight. Brill recalls that the woman was condescending, patronizing and self-righteous. Brill says that she talked about how her life's work undermines trust in the press, which is the most cherished institution we have.
There are other people in that view. Peter Adams, an executive at the News Literacy Project, cautions me against referring to the organization as a news organization. He says that his organization uses the word news in a way that is careful with how it is used. Adams said that the person has only beenposed as such. They object to the political roots of the man.
Emily Bell is the founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. She is in charge of studies of "pink slime", which is purely partisan outlets. Bell says that the person is not that. She doesn't think it's really independent. She says it's too early to say. We are in a period of intense change regarding how we target stories and how people share them.
In the fall of 2021, McGowan was having breakfast with an NYU journalism professor. She wanted the journalism world to take her seriously. The news-business norm of the "view from nowhere" doesn't serve the public according to him. He was skeptical of the person. He was working on an idea for a statement of beliefs that would articulate a news organization's agenda. He hoped it would revive the public's faith in the media. I wanted to see how hard it would be in practice.
Over the course of that autumn, he worked with the newsrooms to write up a list of what each stood for. One newsroom supported workers' rights while the other stood up for abortion access. All of the statements try to explain what liberalism means in practice.
The statements aren't likely to make their way to many readers, few of whom can be expected to click on the site's About pages The statements are there and they go beyond what other news organizations do. One of her staffers sent an email to NewsGuard.
Brill wasn't moved. The red rating would remain for now. The person says it is ridiculous. She moved on.
If she wanted her newsrooms to make a mark on the upcoming elections, she had to build an audience quickly. Democrats don't have some of the right's cultural signifiers, such as being pro-hunting, churchgoing, and anti abortion. The sense of place is important to her editors. Is it possible to build bridges with people who don't care about politics? Is that identity? The right uses culture. The same could be done by her. What is it that makes us unite? Teams in sports. It's state pride.
The sites crank out lifestyle stories because they got the most subscribers from local, cultural coverage. In August, Iowa Starting Line's videos racked up 2 million views. There is a politics story when the time is right, such as one on Republican politicians who voted against funding for baby formula.
Red meat is not included in the stories. In an interview with Michigan's The 'Gander, faith leaders discussed how abortion access is part of their religious traditions. According to the site's Grand Rapids–based editor, it's an attempt to counteract the "Michigan nice" quality of women in the state that leads to avoiding tough political conversations. It is a challenge to the idea that abortion is unpopular when public opinion polls show that more than half of Americans support it being legal.
Liberalism is designed. The former measurement czar of Acronym joined the organization in order to swing voters away from Trump. Barnes says that people who are more informed about what is happening are less likely to be swayed by nonsense.
Getting them to vote isn't easy. Leticia Bode, a Georgetown professor and expert on political communication, says that people need to believe that politics works for them. A diminished sense of political efficacy is a sign of a civil society that is not healthy. Almost half of Americans say there isn't much ordinary citizens can do to change the way the government runs.
That fatalism is one of the reasons that Courier is pumping out stories to counteract it. The first Democrat to win a state since Bill Clinton was helped by Latino voters in Arizona, according to a report. In a rare bit of bipartisanship, North Carolina members of Congress pushed the Treasury Department to allow the use of Covid-19 funding for affordable housing. Pick your leaders and they can do what you want them to do. To make sure those stories reach their intended audiences, she is hiring what she calls content organizers to tap the social networks of their would-be allies, mostly nonprofits.
Increasing the volume of good, factual information is the best antidote to misinformation. It is not the case that the answer is moderation by the platforms. NYU's Cybersecurity for Democracy project tries to identify and offer solutions to vulnerabilities in online platforms that allow misinformation to spread. He says that misinformation is one of the things that is starting to dawn on him. What people find in those news deserts is misinformation and fake news.
The obvious catch is that local journalism isn't cheap. The free market hasn't been able to pay for it, so McGowan has found a way to get money from the political realm. It's for now.
The question is what funders want. There is a political adviser to the venture capitalist. The two started a group called Investing in US to help entrepreneurs on the left. The press bent over backwards to prove its objectivity, according to Mehlhorn. He says that Mehlhorn gets criticized for using tactics that could cause them to become like those they are fighting. Experiments are needed to get at the low-information voters Tara is trying to reach.
She is worried that donors will take their money with them if the threat of Trump isn't over. More than 35 journalists, including a dozen on a central team supporting the local newsrooms, are pumping out 400 pieces of content a week, according to the company. She knows she will have to justify everything she has invested in.
There is a reason that Good Information's strategy seems to stand on shaky ground. There are a number of complex bets that need to be paid off for her to succeed.
News consumption can affect how people vote. The study was about the Fox News effect. The researchers found that the constant coverage of the conservative cable channel was enough to convince 200,000 people to vote for George W. Bush.
Her next bet is supported by top Democrats. The idea is that Republicans have spent decades studying the news consumption habits of would-be voters and building media relationships with them through wildly popular sites like The Daily Wire. MSNBC.com has about 22 million visitors a month. Goldman, a former White House chief digital officer, joined the advisory committee because of that. He says they are not talking to a lot of voters.
She becomes more of a series of leaps. Americans are turned off from voting because of a rise in misinformation and a decrease in good information. Since the Kennedy era, Americans have become less trusting of Washington to do what is right. Can more reporting help? It's difficult to prove that.
If she can get more people to vote, she believes Democrats will win. It's not a fact of life that they will trend left. The biggest bet she can make is that people will turn out if she has more dry information and less ideological thrust.
There was a meeting with the White House chief of staff. An old friend of mine was called in an email. She tells me that President Biden needs to win over a few national reporters in order to break through with the public. He still lives in a world that was better before. She asks, why can't we just do that again?
She was going to ask if the White House would open up a bit to the journalists to let them know about the impacts of the infrastructure bill. She says she came out of the meeting feeling like the administration's messaging struggles are an opportunity for her if she can convince top Progressives to give her a chance.
I mentioned to her that the thing people need to understand about these legacy DC, New York outlets is that they don't care what you think. I thought it was Republican bluster about the irrelevance of the mainstream press. He gets what he needs from Fox News, as well as other conservative websites. If her newsrooms don't occupy a similar space in a few years, she'll judge her success.
The stakes are a tad higher. The future of journalism isn't as important as the future of cynicism. In her own, fraught way, she is trying to figure out if it is still possible to combat the noise that fills Americans' heads. If citizens are fated to only grow disconnected from the news of the day and less invested in the country's fate, it will be distressing.
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