Tara McGowan: We need a new model of pro-democracy media

By Tara McGowan

A little less than one year out from Election Day, we have entered a perilous time for our democracy and institutions. Americans are incredibly exhausted and disenchanted with politics, government, and institutions that we once took for granted. At the same time, legacy media outlets are reaching fewer and fewer Americans with their traditional content formats, and those that do reach them are too focused on rage-bait headlines, horse race political coverage, and just plain bad news. It’s no wonder so many of our friends and neighbors are tuned out, disillusioned, and disengaged. 

If we want to revitalize our democracy, we need to reshape our media landscape to reach the majority of Americans who no longer consume traditional media with information and content that is relevant to their lives and that is produced for the platforms where they spend their time. Here’s why: 

In the days after the 2020 election, lies and misinformation nearly toppled our democracy. While the (not so peaceful) transfer of power still occurred, the lies peddled by the former President and amplified by both mainstream and right-wing media have done lasting harm: almost a third of Americans continue to believe that the 2020 election was fraudulent.

With the 2024 election cycle having already begun, it feels like we are careening towards disaster. From the corridors and conference rooms of power in Washington to dining room tables across America, there is an escalating sense of existential dread about what next year is going to bring for our country. Currently, the mainstream media’s poll-driven horse-race coverage of our political moment isn’t helping. On a “good” day, the current President’s age of 80 is given the same level of attention (if not more) as the former President’s 91 counts of literal treason. Polls one year out from Election Day, which are known to be worse than useless, are driving the conversation among journalists, elected officials, and hyper-engaged voters for weeks at a time. Endless long-form “think” pieces, nestled behind paywalls, navel gaze about our desperate state of affairs for a privileged few. Meanwhile, the rest of Americans are simply over it — if they were ever paying attention to begin with. 

It is no longer news that the majority of Americans get their news and information from social media or emerging online platforms today. Digital video has passed traditional television in daily viewing. TikTok dominates among younger generations, who spend an average of nearly two hours a day on the app. Viral Instagram news accounts are on the rise. Individual creators are replacing media brands and traditional advertising as sources of trusted information and product marketing. And for the most part, legacy media and political organizations alike have underinvested in these channels – and in doing so, have abandoned the tens of millions of Americans who get their only news and information on them. 

It’s time for that to change. Good information brokers, news media, content creators and engaged citizens alike all have a role to play in this. We need to proactively flood the zones day-in and day-out with humanizing stories and engaging, informative content on the platforms, messaging apps, and social newsfeeds where Americans actually spend their time. We need more content that empowers, inspires, and encourages civic participation, that builds trust in good government and institutions, and that doesn’t engage in dangerous “both sides” reporting that gives as much weight to lies as it does to factual statements. 

We need a new model of media that exists explicitly to protect and strengthen our fragile democracy, and that’s what we’re building at COURIER. Over the past four and a half years, we have built one of the fastest-growing networks to reach Americans directly on platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. We’ve invested in digital-first, platform-specific content by partnering with creators and experimenting with video formats that users actually want to watch, revolutionizing what local news looks like, and how it’s consumed online. 

Our newsrooms don’t have flashy billboards like the cable news networks, or massive numbers like rage-bait partisan media outlets online, but what we have is something better.  Our reporters and social media correspondents are showing up every single day in Americans’ newsfeeds and inboxes, earning their trust, so that when high-stakes moments arrive, our audiences know they can turn to us for good, factual, and relevant news to help them be better informed and engaged citizens, constituents, and voters. 

While we continue to be laser-focused on growing the reach of our journalism locally in nine (soon to be eleven 🚀) states, today we’re also launching a new slate of creators, contributors, and products to share this type of content for national audiences, too. COURIER’s national vertical will feature newsletters, social video content, and podcasts produced by a diverse and dynamic set of contributors focused on exposing, explaining and fighting back against threats to our freedoms and democracy as we all embark on this critical election year. We’ll hold the mainstream media accountable, break down the changing internet ecosystem, monitor misinformation, and share what’s really happening in key states around the country. 

If we’re going to counter both distrust and disillusionment – steps that are essential to protecting and preserving our democracy — we need to start by addressing the information crisis in America and building new models to solve it, like we are at COURIER. Much to the chagrin of many journalists whom I deeply respect, we are simply not going back to a time of traditional media formats that reach the masses. It’s time we all look clearly at the challenge before us, adapt to the current conditions, and invest in models like COURIER that actually walk the talk when it comes to building a more informed, civically engaged America.

Tara McGowan is the founder and publisher of COURIER

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