There is nothing the venture-capital brain can’t hack. In the name of innovation and disruption and supposedly profit, millions and millions of dollars can and will be spent to create worse versions of things that already exist, from quarters to high-speed rail to a $400 wifi-connected machine that squeezes juice out of bags of juice. Media is no exception.
On Tuesday, Recode reported that a new organization, the staidly named Project for Good Information, led by Acronym CEO Tara McGowan, will seek to raise $65 million to create a network of liberal digital local news outlets. The idea is to loosen the right’s grip on no-cost media and counter disinformation.
Acronym, as Recode reported, has significant ties to Silicon Valley and is now infamous for backing the developers of the failed app that led to a botched 2020 Iowa Caucus. In the aftermath of that debacle, as McGowan groveled before wealthy donors, others took note of her politics. From a New Yorker article about the failure and McGowan’s role in it:
Nor has it escaped the notice of McGowan’s critics that she has tweeted dismissively about Bernie Sanders (“bernie is not the answer”) and rapturously about Pete Buttigieg (“😍”). In McGowan’s mentions, a few people posted a screenshot of a financial-disclosure form showing that, last July, Shadow was paid some forty-two thousand dollars by the Buttigieg campaign—a campaign that also employs Greta Carnes, one of McGowan’s former employees, and Michael Halle, McGowan’s husband.
The issue with McGown’s latest idea, though, isn’t only her politics, nor is it merely the problem that dogged her first foray into digital media, Courier News, a network of seven local news websites that is best known for the criticism leveled against it—that it’s partisan news, funded by liberal dark money, masquerading as unbiased journalism. The real problem with PGI is the same one that doomed Juicero: It’s stupid and wasteful and doesn’t need to exist! From Recode:
“Traditional media is failing. Disinformation is flourishing. It’s time for a new kind of media,” reads the bold, all-caps text at the beginning of a two-page marketing memo for PGI obtained by Recode. “Recognizing that successful investment in good information online requires trust that must exist outside of politics or partisanship,” the document reads after recalling McGowan’s work at Acronym, “PGI is an evolution of those efforts to tackle the deeper structural issues that contributed to Trump’s election and will outlast him in defeat.”
This ominous forecast elides the material reasons why traditional media is failing—the ad duopoly of Facebook and Google, the scourge of private equity, and a lack of public funding for news media—while positing that information must “exist outside of politics or partisanship.” Such an idea is not only absurdly quaint but also confusing given that the entire driving motivation behind the project is to be a liberal counter to right-wing media. But the dumbest part of the memo is still to come:
“PGI is building a new media ecosystem to meet the urgency of this moment. By incubating, investing in and scaling ideas that not only serve the public good, but that drive innovation in content distribution and business models, PGI is building a portfolio of media properties to radically and rapidly improve the way our society values, consumes, and exchanges information on the internet,” the marketing memo reads.
An impressive collection of buzzwords, to be sure, but the mission described here is, practically speaking, no different than the mission of scores of existing media outlets. Rather than trying to position herself as the first thinkovator to ever come up with the concept of “publishing vital information and making it easy for people to read so as to better serve the public,” McGowan could, as the New Republic’s Alex Pareene pointed out, just give money to publications that are already doing that work.
(It’s worth noting that the redundant innovation of PGI mirrors that of the tech giants who are largely responsible for the current sad state of media. For example, instead of taking its incredible profits and licensing news reporting because it’s vital and deserves to be funded, Google throws a bunch of wasted money into the Google News Initiative.)
But that would require McGowan to see herself as something less than an innovative genius, solely capable of saving the media industry through her fundraising savvy and novel ideas. In a Medium essay published on Nov. 13, titled “Democrats Won the Election. So Why Does Only Half The Country Believe It?” McGowan wrote what reads like a preview of what PGI wants to produce. She addresses the “always-on conservative media ecosystem” and laid out the need to fight “on the same battlefield as Trump and the right.” Then she wrote:
This is not an argument to stoop to Republicans’ level to win the information war, either. We can tell the truth. We can reveal and counter the lies. We can compete and win with the facts — and with the powerful stories of Americans impacted most by the decisions being made for them in Washington.
This sounds like the work that many websites are doing. It sounds like what many local newspapers and alt-weeklies are doing, or would be doing more of if their business models weren’t under constant attack from Facebook, Google, and venture-capital firms. It sounds like much of what’s published by national publications, which are increasingly unavailable to people who can’t or won’t pay to get behind walls. It sounds like journalism. But why support or improve on any of that when you can convince a bunch of people to give you millions of dollars to reinvent a shoddier version of what already exists?