Tara McGowan, the founder of the group behind tech firm Shadow Inc. — which developed the failed application that Iowa Democrats tried to use to report caucus results — also started a for-profit news organization to roll out pro-Democrat coverage under the guise of “local news” in key swing states.
McGowan, a former journalist and Democratic strategist who founded ACRONYM as a campaign-consulting non-profit, also raised $25 million from a host of wealthy donors to establish Courier Newsroom, which publishes digital news coverage in Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin ahead of 2020.
Courier states on its website that it aims to “empower individuals and communities through local reporting that helps people understand and affect the issues impacting their lives,” and that it is “owned by the non-profit ACRONYM.”
In turn, the media conglomerate sponsors state-orientated sites to churn out flattering coverage for Democrats. So far, local affiliates for Arizona, Virginia, and Wisconsin are up and running, with the rest slated for further expansion efforts.
“We need to grow sustainable infrastructure to support local reporting that holds a mirror to our democracy and all of its participants,” Courier editor-in-chief and Vice News alum Lindsay Schrupp wrote in letter explaining the operation.
Schrupp described while appearing on a podcast with McGowan in December how Courier Newsroom could build “trust in this incredibly fractured media environment.”
“When we don’t have those shared sets of facts, when we don’t read shared headlines, then we also lose sight of having trust in each other,” Schrupp stated. “ . . . Local news, in that context, is a way to get people to start takings steps that are real meaningful steps, and that’s the way that we are going to fight this.”
Earlier in the podcast, McGowan admitted that “obviously Courier Newsroom has a progressive bend — it has progressive investors that we are transparent about our affiliation.”
Bloomberg Businessweek profiled McGowan and her efforts to launch Courier in November, detailing how McGowan saw the operation as an alternative to advertising for influencing voters through social media —by paying to put Courier-affiliated articles on the Facebook feeds of swing-state voters.
“Everybody who clicks on, likes, or shares an article,” McGowan explained, “we get that data back to create a lookalike audience to find other people with similar attributes in the same area. So we continually grow our ability to find people.”
McGowan also challenged potential critics over the disguised nature of Courier.
“A lot of people I respect will see this media company as an affront to journalistic integrity because it won’t, in their eyes, be balanced,” she told Businessweek. “What I say to them is, balance does not exist anymore.”
The Businessweek profile cites Courier’s work in influencing the 2019 Virginia elections — which Democrats won in a landslide — by using its state-affiliate Dogwood online outlet to publish a number of articles which not only promoted involvement in the election, but also featured Democratic talking points.
“Our goal was to speak to readers in an ongoing, sustainable way with a focus on the long term,” Schrupp told Bloomberg on the strategy. “Not to parachute in a couple weeks before the election and then pack up when it’s over.”
An October 8 piece frames gun control as “the top issue” for voters, while an article published October 21 highlights “incendiary, often right-of-right comments” from a Virginia Republican. Dogwood also features a “Voter Guide” page with helpful information and links to register.
McGowan and ACRONYM have come under fire for their role in funding a tech firm which built the faulty app used by Iowa State Democrats to collect caucus results. State campaign finance records show that the state party paid Shadow Inc. over $60,000 in November and December for “web development.”
ACRONYM released a statement in the wake of the fiasco that attempted to distance itself from the organization, with McGowan — who is married to a strategist for Pete Buttigieg’s campaign — tweeting that “we don’t have any information beyond the public statements the IDP put out.”
Here are the facts about @anotheracronym’s relationship to @ShadowIncHQ, an independent company ACRONYM invested in. We don’t have any information beyond the public statements the IDP has put out + like all of you, eagerly await learning what happened and who won the IA caucus. https://t.co/sWohZqZkPe
— Tara McGowan (@taraemcg) February 4, 2020
Web archiving shows that the firm has previously stated on its website that it “launched” Shadow. The Daily Beast reported Tuesday that ACRONYM was taking additional measures to distance itself from Shadow, including removing a blog post announcing ACRONYM’s investment.
If you look at Acronym's "About" page today it says "we invested in Shadow" but if you look at the Wayback Machine from last month it's "we launched Shadow" pic.twitter.com/FM5XVddclh
— Kate Knibbs 🏄🏻♀️ (@Knibbs) February 4, 2020
Both ACRONYM and Courier did not return requests for comment.