Tara McGowan wants news sites to “take their paywalls down” for critical 2024 election coverage and develop new business strategies.
Speaking at The New Republic’s Stop Trump Summit, the Courier Newsroom founder and publisher discussed how readers are more likely to passively consume free information online than information behind a paywall.
“I do not disparage paywalls,” McGowan told The New Republic after the event. “However, if your mission and the reason that you exist is to inform the public … you have got to figure out a way to make the most important information your audiences need to be informed citizens and informed and engaged voters available for free.”
McGowan explained how paywalls are great at bringing in revenue, filling in for traditional advertising revenue, but many readers can’t or won’t pay for them. The need for new business models, combined with increasing distrust from readers, means that the news media is “in the midst of an existential crisis right now” according to McGowan.
“The reason that the media is as bad as it is, the reason they’re as obsessed with Trump as it is, is because it makes them money,” McGowan said. “A lot of news organizations have not evolved to meet people where they are on social media platforms because they don’t have a way of monetizing that.”
Increasingly obsolete themes she has noticed in news media include longer articles, dense newsletters, and unbalanced coverage. McGowan is specifically concerned with how organizations cover inaccurate sides of a story for the sake of appearing neutral. She also believes there is too much negativity in news coverage.
“[Editors and reporters are] thinking about balance in their reporting as ‘I need to give as much space in my article to both sides of an argument,’ even if one side is not accurate,’” she pointed out. “And when you only inform people about the bad things, then you are contributing to cynicism and mistrust in government, and that’s really bad for democracy.”
Unlike other newsrooms, McGowan said the Courier Newsroom runs randomized control treatment experiments to measure the impact of its journalism on its audience. “We’re able to survey and analyze voter turnout records of audiences to see if the people who get our news on social media are more likely to vote, compared to the ones who don’t have the same demographic, and then we do the same thing for our email newsletter program,” she said.
For newsletters, the newsroom gathers a small number of subscribers, and political reporting is then removed from their newsletters so they just get lifestyle content, and then they are surveyed. There’s also an audience that only receives the political reporting, and they are surveyed as well.
“We’ve actually proven that we increase informed voter participation,” McGowan said. “There needs to be a lot more introspection in the news media business.”