Courier Newsroom was created in November with the goal, its founders said, of restoring trust in the media by building “local reporting infrastructure in states across the U.S.” Courier Newsroom Editor in Chief Lindsay Schrupp wrote in a column that the news organization wants to unite Americans over shared truths: “If local news disappears, so does our democracy.”
A news organization investing in local journalism seems like a welcome development, right?
Maybe not. In reality, Courier Newsroom is a clandestine political operation, publishing, among other things, positive stories about moderate Democrats who face difficult reelections in November. Courier’s main backer is Acronym, a liberal dark-money group that has invested heavily in Democratic digital advertising and campaign technology — including Shadow Inc., the tech company behind the app that was supposed to report the results of Monday’s Iowa caucuses. Its failed app aside, Acronym has already laid the groundwork to have an outsize impact on the 2020 elections.
Through a $25 million investment in Courier and affiliated sites in six battleground states, Acronym aims to reshape the digital media ecosystem by taking advantage of Americans’ trust in local journalism. Unlike some sources of partisan disinformation, Courier stories are generally fact-based. Courier discloses its connection to Acronym but provides no information about the group or its donors, who remain anonymous due to Acronym’s nonprofit status. Because it obscures its funders and agenda, Courier’s “news” operation leads to the same result as conspiracy theories or outright lies: Readers are deceived.
Acronym’s founder Tara McGowan — a campaign strategist and former digital director of Democratic super PAC Priorities USA — has made her goals clear: “Democrats are losing politically because they have invested in reaching the wrong audiences through the wrong mediums and formats at the wrong times,” she wrote in 2017. Courier, as she sees it, is one way for Democrats to up their digital game.
This faux news site has a strategic niche: pumping up moderate Democrats elected to Congress in 2018 in Republican-leaning districts. NewsGuard — a nonpartisan organization where I work that reviews the credibility of hundreds of news sites — found more than 30 stories published in the site’s brief existence that covered these Democrats in a positive light. We could identify no similar articles published about congressional Republicans.
High-profile liberal Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) are rarely covered by Courier and the site has devoted practically no attention to the Democratic presidential contest. You will find very little on divisive topics like race, abortion and immigration. Courier instead focuses on issues championed by moderate Democrats in swing districts: assisting farmers, lowering drug prices and supporting veterans. “Rep. Lauren Underwood defying legislative expectations for a freshman,” reads a typical headline, which accompanied a story touting the accomplishments of the Illinois congresswoman on issues including suicide prevention.
Underwood tweeted the story, garnering a combined 2,000 likes and retweets. Courier subjects like Reps. Anthony Brindisi of New York and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia regularly share these laudatory articles, but they don’t need to. Courier pays to put these stories in voters’ Facebook feeds.
Courier does not earn revenue from ads or reveal its donors, but it has somehow spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on targeted Facebook ads to ensure that, say, Rep. Harley Rouda’s constituents in California see Courier Newsroom’s flowery articles about his accomplishments. One such Facebook ad launched on Monday. With an investment of less than $200 for the ad, Courier reached over 15,000 Californians.
Democrats are not the only party to try this tactic: A conservative network founded by tea party activists has sites called TheMichiganStar.com and TennesseeStar.com. States Newsroom, a network with sites in 15 states, was launched with the backing of the Hopewell Fund, another liberal dark-money group.
A news release Courier posted when it launched said the site would “combat rising misinformation online.” But the solution to political misinformation is not a different, more tech-savvy form of political misinformation. A more honest explanation is that Courier and Acronym are exploiting the widespread loss of local journalism to create and disseminate something we really don’t need: hyperlocal partisan propaganda.