Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Is the news industry ready for another pivot to video?
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Oct. 9, 2013, 11:01 a.m.

You won’t believe which media company just launched a BuzzFeed-inspired microsite

Okay, it’s The Washington Post.

On Monday morning, a grumpy garden gnome introduced Ezra Klein’s newest addition to the Internet: Know More, “a site for people who like learning stuff.”

It’s a simple grid of images, looking not unlike Pinterest. (Or Fuego. Or Topicly. Image-heavy grids are in these days.)

knowmore screen grab

Eight to 10 times a day, Klein and reporter/Know More point man Dylan Matthews will post an image macro, video, tweet, data visualization, or block of text on a WordPress microsite built by Yuri Victor, user experience director at the Post.

If you’re intrigued by the snippet, you click “Know More,” a direct link to a context-providing article, maybe from The Post, but probably not. If you’re not intrigued, you click “No More” and head back to the Know More homepage. (Perhaps a Roberto Durán-style “No más” might be more clear.)

The pun is credited to Joey Marburger, the Post’s director of digital products and design. Beyond being tongue-in-cheek, it has a lot to do with how Klein and his team wanted the site to function: Readers are only meant to stay on the site briefly before charging off to pursue whatever interest was hopefully sparked by Know More’s catchy title and eye-catching post — whether that’s a Post story or something else.

Though building something like an internal Upworthy or BuzzFeed was Klein’s idea, it’s not tied tightly to Wonkblog. As Klein has said since the launch, Know More is not meant to be a traffic driver for the blog, which he says, “does just fine.”

Although Know More is labeled as a Wonkblog project, he says it doesn’t really matter if readers associate the brands. The only goal is to get people to read it, and to share it. “This was not about fitting in to some piece of Wonkblog,” Klein told me. “This is about this thing we love to do at Wonkblog in a broader way: Say ‘Look at this interesting, amazing thing. Isn’t that cool?'”

But don’t call it click-bait.

“There’s this idea that there’s this thing called click-bait that everybody wants to click on,” Klein says. “If I could figure out what that is and get people to click on good content — my god, what a wonderful thing!”

Both Klein and Matthews have a lot of respect for the work BuzzFeed does, and feel the site, along with Upworthy, doesn’t get enough credit for the quality of its packaging. “It really irks me when people act like they’re better than BuzzFeed, which is an extremely effective journalism outfit — much better than most at being honestly what people are looking for,” says Matthews, who will create most of the content for Know More.

After the Monday announcement, Gawker editor John Cook tweeted a subtle “look how far we’ve come” jab, linking to a Know More post and to a 2009 piece by Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira arguing that Gawker and its aggregating, link-baiting ilk were going to be the death of journalism. (Gawker had aggregated one of Shapira’s stories in a way he didn’t like; we wrote about it at the time. As it turned out, Gawker had been pitched the story by WaPo PR.) The aggregated had become the aggregator, Cook was implying.

Says Klein: “I come from the blogosphere. I come from having a blog. Certainly back then, which was really before Twitter and Facebook, you lived on links. That was the only way people found you. I’m really thankful when people do honorable aggregation.”

So if Know More feels like a BuzzFeed or Upworthy — “Why your mom should to college in one chart,” “The best song ever about a Target store” — that’s not an accident. That’s how it’s mean to feel — intriguing, intuitive, and ultimately, essential.

“Mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery,” says Matthews. “We regard them with respect and envy and want to get a little of that special sauce.”

But of course, Know More’s target audience is a bit nerdier than BuzzFeed’s — it’s for people who look up key dates of World War I just to know it, for people who blow through a weekend reading Wikipedia articles without showering. The question is whether Klein and his team can use the tricks of the former to serve the needs of the latter.

3 ways Know More is basically BuzzFeed

Writing impossible-to-ignore headlines is an art more than a science, Klein wrote in an email, “and I’ve never been that good at art.”

Both Matthews and Klein said that writing the headlines and picking which parts of stories to surface is a collaboration that takes a lot of time and effort. Of course, BuzzFeed itself is known for using science to narrow down what makes something shareable. Klein says the internally built Know More platform will allow him full access to the analytics, which he’s eager to dive into.

Of all the questions he hopes to explore, Klein said he’s most interested in finding out, “How do we activate…that sort of joyous curiosity that exists in these wonderful ways on the Internet?” Like Upworthy, Klein wants to take what BuzzFeed seems to have mastered and use it to promote a specific type of content to its corresponding audience, with virality being the ultimate goal.

“Being essential in that way, and sort of grabbing people in that way, is the medium-term goal,” Matthews says. “If a middle-school teacher who friended me years ago shares something, that would be a good sign.”

But there’s another key way that Know More resembles BuzzFeed, and right now it’s most evident in the upper-right tile of the Know More homepage. “We certainly intend to have ads on the site. I would like to pay the salary of my writers. Over time, I would like to pay the salary of more writers,” says Klein. “That’s something I could not be more comfortable with. If any luxury advertisers would like to come sponsor Know More, give us a call.”

(Matthews also used our interview to issue an open call to advertisers. “If anyone wants to buy an ad on Know More,” he said, “I highly encourage that behavior.”)

“If I could get people to read great stories by naming them all “1 Weird Trick to Lose Weight,” I’d do it,” says Klein.

But there are a few things about the new project that sets it apart from its viral peers.

3 ways Know More is not basically BuzzFeed

“I think BuzzFeed and Upworthy do super cool things. I read them and I learn a lot from them,” Klein says. “This is a different kind of project. This is an effort to get people to interact more not with the social web but with the slow web.” It’s meme-as-pointer, not meme-for-meme’s-sake. With Know More, he wants to take the lessons of the social web and apply them to the kind of wonky reporting he and his team are known for.

“I think we have this problem in journalism where we have to somehow persuade people to read the stuff we’ve written before they’ve read it,” he says. “After you’ve read something really great, it’s easy to explain why you wanted to read that — It was a great story! But before, it’s not.”

More so than Upworthy — which typically embeds videos or photos generated elsewhere, making most clickthroughs optional — Know More errs toward pushing you to the original source. “The site is designed to get you to leave it. It’s not designed to keep you there, it’s not designed to keep you at The Washington Post,” says Klein. “We built this from the beginning with the idea being the action we’re trying to get people to take is to leave.”

Ultimately, Know More is an experiment to help understand the desires of its audience. If more people read Wonkblog content along the way, fine. If the Post makes some money in the process, great. If your weird aunt or former roommate ends up posting a Know More link to Facebook, even better. But in the end, the project has two hallmarks of useful experimentation: It builds on a preexisting success, and the stakes are low.

“I think there’s every chance we could do this badly. We could fail,” says Klein. “Eight months from now, if it’s not working, I’ll kill it.”

POSTED     Oct. 9, 2013, 11:01 a.m.
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Is the news industry ready for another pivot to video?
Aggregate data from 47 countries shows all the growth in platform news use coming from video or video-led networks.
Many people don’t pay full price for their news subscription. Most don’t want to pay anything at all
Is increasing subscriber numbers by offering people rock-bottom trial prices sustainable?
What’s in a successful succession? Nonprofit news leaders on handing the reins to the next guard
“Any organization that is dependent on having a founder around is inherently unsustainable.”