116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Last fall, as I scrolled through Facebook, an article from the Courier Newsroom popped up. It detailed all of the fantastic things my then-Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer was doing for Iowa’s 1st District. It was a sponsored ad, meaning someone had paid for the article to be placed in my social media feed.
Social media users regularly see news articles in the form of sponsored posts. Often, they’re shared by a campaign or political party to make their candidates look good to voters. But this time, the Courier Newsroom itself was the promoter. It seemed disconcerting that a news organization was paying to promote such an adulatory piece about a candidate during an intense campaign cycle.
It turned out that the article was only designed to look like legitimate news. Courier Newsroom was launched in 2019 and until recently, financially backed by ACRONYM, a dark money group dedicated to “advancing progressive causes through innovative communications,” according to its website. Bloomberg’s Joshua Green puts it more bluntly, describing Courier’s articles as “political instruments designed to get them to vote for Democrats.”
How exactly is the sanctity of independent journalism preserved by selling to a national organization funded by deep-pocketed donors with political motivations?
Conservatives are also guilty of these questionable journalistic practices. The Free Telegraph, for example, is “made possible through the generous support of the Republican Governors Association,” according to its website. But unlike the Free Telegraph, which describes itself as “your home for the latest in conservative news and opinion,” Courier claims to be an investment in the dying field of local journalism, creating “local” news sites such as UpNorthNews in Wisconsin and The Copper Courier in Arizona, both swing states.
Readers in Iowa will soon start seeing regular Courier content. On June 28, Pat Rynard announced that he’d sold Iowa Starting Line, his local progressive political news site, to Courier Newsroom, making it the multimillion dollar company’s first acquisition of an existing local organization.
I find it an unfortunate change. Giving Rynard the benefit of the doubt his dedication over the years has earned him, I can only imagine how difficult it is to generate enough revenue to keep a local digital outlet sustainable. But how exactly is the sanctity of independent journalism preserved by selling to a national organization funded by deep-pocketed donors with political motivations?
It’s not, I fear, and can’t be. Illustrating this concern is Iowa Starting Line’s “new mission,” announced concurrently with its sale to Courier Newsroom. Its journalists will now focus less on the insider political news for which they were widely respected and transition into creating content intended to “combat disinformation.” It’s a popular take in a “post-truth” era, in which anyone with strong opinions can find an echo chamber of information, and any supporter of a losing issue can claim “fake news” as a factor in their party or candidate’s loss.
If we define “fake news,” though, as information designed to mislead a reader into voting a certain way, what do we call curated articles designed to “Reach voters with strategic narratives + information year round?” That’s how Democratic strategist and ACRONYM founder Tara McGowan described the Courier Newsroom initiative in a memo obtained by VICE News.
Call it what you want. Fake news. Real news. “Combating disinformation.” Either way, it seems that those who can’t beat it are choosing to become it.
Althea Cole is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org