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July 14, 2021, noon

I have come to bury Knewz, not to praise it

News Corp’s painfully named news aggregator promised to somehow battle “crass clickbait,” filter bubbles, media bias, and two trillion-dollar companies, all at once. It ended up being a D-minus Drudge clone and OnlyFans blog.

Knewz is dead, and shame on anyone who bought even a sliver of the hype. It’s standard marketing practice to pump up your new product — revolutionary! transformative! — but Knewz set a new bar for empty boasts backed by product nonsense.

For those of you blessedly unfamiliar, this terribly titled site was a dull knewz, er, news aggregator from Knewz, um, News Corp, first teased in 2019 and launched 18 months ago. What was its angle? Here’s the press release from its launch, reduced and rendered as PR blank verse, the poetry of bad ideas.

News will be transformed by Knewz

free of filter bubbles and
     narrow-minded nonsense

not egregious aggregation but
     generous aggregation

cutting edge, proprietary artificial intelligence

access to publishers large and small,
niche and general,
located in all 50 states;
they have every opportunity to monetize their content.

We live in a world of vexatious verticals,
     of crass clickbait,
     of polarized perspectives and
     fallacious,
          fact-free
               feeds —

Knewz is knowing and needed.

Knewz nous is in the house.1

If you don’t Knewz,
     you don’t know.

Society’s first warnings of Knewz came from News Corp’s own Wall Street Journal, under the headline: “News Corp Readies News App to Address Publishers’ Concerns About Google and Facebook.”

…a news-aggregation service meant to address concerns that Alphabet Inc.’s Google News and other digital platforms don’t reward publishers’ work adequately and play down articles from certain types of sites…

The service will draw from hundreds of news sources, including national outlets…digital-native players, magazine publishers and local newspapers

The articles on Knewz.com will link directly to publishers’ sites, and News Corp won’t take a cut of the advertising revenue the articles generate…

The service will aim to promote original news reports rather than those that are quick rehashes of existing articles…

News Corp isn’t striking licensing deals with media companies for the service, since it is simply linking out to their sites without hosting their content on its platform or charging for it…

The project aims to give exposure to smaller outlets that News Corp executives believe are often demoted in Google’s search results and Facebook Inc.’s social feed…That includes publishers with conservative audiences such as the Daily Wire, the Daily Caller, the Washington Free Beacon and the Washington Examiner…

[Some News Corp execs] said the hope is that it could potentially give News Corp more leverage in its relationship with Google and other platforms…

“We want people to see a wide spectrum of news and views, from local, niche and national sources, without bent or bias,” [says a spokesman].

Nearly every word I’ve quoted above was pure, undistilled nonsense, and a lot of it was obvious from Day 1.

I come to bury Knewz, not to praise it; it shut down for good a few days ago, and no one will miss it. But it’s worth taking the time to note all the ways it was a terrible idea before it disappears into the Big House of Dumb Media Products in the sky.

“a wide spectrum of news and views…without bent or bias”

Did Rupert Murdoch — known the world over for promoting right-wing views through his media outlets — really create a news site “without bent or bias”?

Let’s take a look at a random recent day in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (May 1) to see what the Knewz homepage looked like that day. Here’s what an imaginary Knewz reader would have seen then (click to enlarge and see the entire page):

Take a look at the two top stories stripped across the top. What publications does Knewz link to?

Conservative and owned by the Murdochs: Fox News, The Sun, The Wall Street Journal editorial page

Conservative: The Daily Caller, The Blaze, and Just the News (the site of journalistturnedUkraineconspiracist John Solomon)

Who the hell knows these days: Newsweek

Mainstream media: NPR

(Maybe you want to argue NPR is actually a den of Maoists secretly plotting mandatory wheat-germ vaccines against heterosexuality or something. If so, please enjoy another part of the Internet today.)

The same pattern is repeated for other politics or politics-adjacent stories. The 1619 Project? Let’s hear from Fox News, National Review, and ol’ John Solomon again…plus CNN.

A ginned-up non-story alleging the Biden administration was “interfering” with the census? Fox News, The Daily Caller, The Wall Street Journal editorial page…and an AP story that’s about the census, but completely unrelated to the fever dreams of the other three.

Or how about the story cluster headlined “WAR ON COPS?” (subtle!): The Washington Examiner, Fox News, The Daily Caller, and The Blaze. Something about Hunter Biden? Try Fox News, The Sun, Just the News again…and Mediaite. What’s up with Mike Pence? Ask The Washington Times, The Sun, National Review…and Talking Points Memo. Alexei Navalny? The Daily Wire, The Sun, The Washington Examiner…and The Washington Post.

Some stats on how many links certain news outlets got in this one snapshot of Knewz:

The New York Times: 4 links
The Washington Post: 2
The Guardian: 2
Associated Press: 1

Fox News: 22 links
New York Post: 12
The Sun: 12

The Blaze: 7 links
Washington Examiner: 5
The Daily Caller: 4
Just the News: 3

Here’s another randomly selected Knewz homepage, February 28. How many links go where? 21 for the New York Post, 12 for Fox News, 6 for the Daily Mail, 5 for The Sun, 2 for the Washington Examiner, 2 for the Washington Times…versus 2 for The New York Times, 1 for The Washington Post, and 0 for the AP, CNN, or The Guardian.

Many of Knewz’ aggregated stories weren’t about politics per se — though they were frequently the kind of tabloidy crime stories meant to make the reader think barbarians are at civilization’s gates unless some law-and-order type cleans things up pronto. (“Grandmother fatally punched in French Quarter”! “Inside the ‘Cult-Like’ Summer Camp Where Women Say They Had to Hug Their Abusers”! “How a first date led to a murder, a cover-up and a huge wildfire that killed 2”! More about that later.)

But when Knewz’ stories were about politics, it nearly always played things to the right, not “without bent or bias.” (Also, remember that Knewz was supposed to “promote original news reports rather than…quick rehashes of existing articles. Not exactly supported by the evidence here, with shareable agitprop beating out quality reporting.)

“free of filter bubbles and narrow-minded nonsense”

If that last item didn’t make it clear that the decision-making at Knewz was something less than editorially pure, look back at this Pete Brown piece from last year. Pete, god bless him, pulled together an even larger dataset of Knewz links to illustrate that the site was far more interested in pushing Fox News and New York Post stories — which is to say, Murdoch- and News Corp-owned stories — than in anything approximating a neutral selection of journalism.

“Despite touting the ‘range of views and perspectives in the stories it showcases,’ one in every eight stories came from three conservative sources: the New York Post, Fox News, or the Daily Mail, which combined for 1,645 links. That number tops the combined total from the 212 least-linked-to outlets (1,635 links). Thus, the top one percent of outlets received more promotion than the bottom 63 percent.”

When it finally gave up the ghost last week, its goodbye message was this: “Knewz is no more, but here are links to some of the world’s most trusted news sources”: The Wall Street Journal (sure), Marketwatch (okay), Mansion Global (what), the New York Post (er, um), The Sun (hmm, well), and…Realtor.com (huh?). You’ll never guess what those most-trusted news sources in the world share.

“not egregious aggregation but generous aggregation”

This was a big deal for News Corp, which has long complained that the platforms, among their many sins, don’t do enough to give visual credit to the news sites they link to. Protecting provenance, they call it.

Knewz did indeed attach an outlet’s name and/or favicon to its headlines. (Usually both, sometimes only one or the other).

But is Knewz notably more “generous” in its visual credit than, say, Google’s news search results?

Or Facebook’s News Tab?

Or Facebook’s News Feed?

Or Apple News?

Maybe you like some of these designs more than others — but it’s not like Knewz was worlds ahead of the platforms in crediting publishers. In fact, I’d argue Knewz was less generous with credit than the platforms — simply because they were trying to train consumers to think of this new brand, “Knewz,” as the place to go for news. Google and Facebook don’t need to convince you to adopt some new behavior; you’re already using them, all the time!

“News Corp won’t take a cut of the advertising revenue the articles generate”

I mean, congratulations? You’ve discovered something called a “link,” a nifty way to help someone move from one website to another. It’s good, I guess that News Corp isn’t insisting that if they send you 0.24% of your traffic, they now deserve 0.24% of your total ad revenue. But that’s just how the whole damned web works.

If someone clicks a Facebook link to your website, Facebook doesn’t show up at your door the next day and demand a check or money order. (It’s more often the other way around!) If I link to a news story here on niemanlab dot org, I don’t get to take a cut of whatever the news site makes off the pageview I have “generously aggregated” in their direction.

“News Corp won’t take a cut of the advertising revenue the articles generate” is functionally equivalent to “Joe’s Plumbing won’t demand a share of your children’s future salaries to fix your toilet,” or “United Airlines will fly you to Milwaukee without also dunking your favorite shirt in sulfuric acid.” It’s meaningless bluster.

“aims to give exposure to smaller outlets…often demoted in Google’s search results and Facebook Inc.’s social feed…such as the Daily Wire, the Daily Caller, the Washington Free Beacon and the Washington Examiner”

We’ve already seen that Knewz wasn’t about exposure for “the little guy” — it was about helping the conservative little guy, along with the conservative not-so-little guy. (Mostly guys.) But this line of argument is part of a broader attempt to convince people the platforms are all out to get conservative media.

Back in reality, this is the list of the most shared news outlets on Facebook in June 2021. No. 1? The Daily Wire, that allegedly “demoted” gamer of the algorithm. No. 2? The conservative Daily Mail. No. 3? Fox News. No. 4? The video-sharing website Rumble, popular among conservatives and featuring new user Donald J. Trump.

Only then do you get to CNN (No. 5) and the BBC (No. 6), followed closely by No. 7 The Blaze (right), No. 8 The Guardian (left), No. 9 NBC News, and No. 10 Western Journal (right).

The world in which The Daily Wire needs “exposure” to make up for its lack of Facebook success is a world we do not live in.

(Fun fact: What comes in at No. 11, just after Western Journal, whose top headline as I type this is the false “Joe Biden Says Trump Supporters Are Worse than Slave-Owning Confederates”? A scrappy little outlet named The New York Times.)

“access to publishers large and small, niche and general, located in all 50 states”

Ah, but maybe Knewz was nice to local news, you ask. Maybe there was something redeeming about it, somewhere?

Remember, there was no personalization on Knewz, so there was no way to see news that is local to you, Person Who Lives in Townburg Falls, U.S.A. But maybe it linked out a lot to outlets that are local to, well, someone?

Not so much. I pulled the top 126 external links on an archived Knewz homepage (all the links that load initially, before you scroll several screens down). Of those 126, a grand total of 13 went to a local news site — 5 to local newspapers, 8 to local TV stations.

But wait — four of those stories, while hosted on local TV station sites, were actually from AP or other national wire stories. So we’re down to nine.

Six of those nine local stories came from the obscure remote mountain villages of New York City (×2), Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, and Seattle (DMA Nos. 1, 3, 7, 8, and 12). The other three, weirdly, are all from…Alabama — Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Huntsville. (Congrats, AL.com?)

So these nine local stories — were they hardcore watchdoggery, dedicated local journalists exposing government wrongdoing and making their community a better place? Nope. All nine were straightforward local crime stories with a tabloidy tinge — or else they were about a dog:

Of these nine stories, four don’t include a single quote from anyone — no police, no victims, no shocked neighbors, nothing — and seem to be written straight from a police report or press release. One has a single quote lifted (with attribution) from a different local outlet, a TV station. Two have quotes from press conferences held by local police and city officials; one has several quotes from a press conference held by a victim’s family.

As far as I can tell, only one of the nine local stories includes even a single quote from someone the reporter had spoken to outside the confines of a press conference.

(That quote, in its entirety: “Thank God, nobody was injured.”)

Quotes are the be-all and end-all of local journalism, of course, but you don’t find too many in-depth or enterprise stories without them. Those aren’t the local stories that Knewz was interested in.

“We live in a world of vexatious verticals, of crass clickbait”

Crass clickbait.

(My longstanding position is that “clickbait,” in all meta-media discussions, is a synonym for “stories I don’t like.” There is nothing inherently wrong with writing a story that’s likely to be of interest to readers! It’s only when that initial interest is deemed unrequited that one becomes the notional fish on a hook.)

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of writing about media, and one of the stories that’s stuck with me most came all the way back in 2006, when Nick Lemann wrote a long New Yorker profile of that era’s conservative media star, Bill O’Reilly. Lemann spent a self-destructive amount of time watching “The O’Reilly Factor” — post-loofah, pre-firing from Fox News — and noticed this:

Still, politics gets no more airtime from O’Reilly than media-bashing. If what you know about “The O’Reilly Factor” comes mainly from its opponents on the left — from movies like “Outfoxed” and Web sites like Media Matters — and you watch it regularly for a while, you’ll be surprised by how little of the content these days is political. “The O’Reilly Factor” is, increasingly, not a conservative show but a cop show — “O’Reilly: Special Victims Unit,” perhaps — devoted particularly to sex offenders…Once, when Howard Stern was asked to explain his success, he said that he owed it to lesbians. O’Reilly owes his to child molesters.

Faithful watchers of “The O’Reilly Factor” are familiar with a cast of characters whose names rarely appear in the mainstream press but whom the show treats as major figures, because they serve so well as emblems of what’s wrong with America. They’re either sex offenders, or people insufficiently tough on sex offenders, or people with lesser moral failings, or America-haters: people like Jay Bennish, a Colorado high-school teacher who was placed on leave after one of his students taped him blasting President Bush in class (he has since been reinstated); Shawn Strawser, a Florida twenty-year-old who induced four preteen girls to perform oral sex on him; Edward Cashman, a Vermont judge who sentenced the convicted molester of a six-year-old girl to a minimum of sixty days in prison (Cashman later increased the minimum sentence to three years); and Matt Dubay, a twenty-five-year-old Michigan man who is trying to avoid paying his former girlfriend child support because he didn’t want the child that he fathered and she bore.

I remember reading this 15 years ago and, for the first time, drawing a mental line between conservative media and sexual criminality or deviance. Just as conservative media thrives when it can convince you There’s a Murderer Right Around The Corner or People Who Don’t Look Like You Are Coming, it thrives when it can sell Don’t Look Now But Sexual Perversion Is Standing Right Behind You.

This conservative-politics-in-the-front, evil-pervert-criminals-in-the-back mullet was also Knewz’ secret weapon.

I went back and looked at every tweet that linked to a knewz.com url over the last few weeks of the site’s existence. About 15 or 20 percent of them linked to stories about the British royal family. (That Meghan Markle — Knewz is not so sure about her!) But below are nearly all of the non-royal tweets; maybe you’ll notice a theme or two.

Like female teachers having sex with their students:

Or hey, maybe some other female authority figure:

Or photogenic young women who may be dead or, worse, twerking too quickly after their husband’s death:

There are a lot of bad moms killing their kids, Knewz can exclusively report:

(Remember, it can boost your pageviews if you have a mugshot of a Black person; it lets people with, ahem, “high levels of racial resentment” feel good and blame random incidents on Black Lives Matter.)

Maybe, if you’re lucky, there’ll be a vigilante mob meting out justice!

Or maybe it’s just plain old dismemberment you have to work with.

But lately, from looking at Twitter, you’d be forgiven for thinking Knewz was mostly a blog about the suddenly hot porn/porn-ish site OnlyFans.

If you think I’m exaggerating the share of Knewz’ Twitter attention that went to dismembering and disrobing, feel free to look for yourself. It’s pretty much the only Knewz content anyone talked about.

Thank god, if only for this brief geological moment, that we had Knewz to defend us from “crass clickbait.”

“the hope is that it could potentially give News Corp more leverage in its relationship with Google and other platforms”

Seriously: a cut-rate Drudge Report OD’d on yellow, a link blog with no editorial voice beyond “You should probably be scared, about everything,” a site with a name the worst Huey Lewis and the News cover band would pass on — that’s going to be the thing to being the duopoly to its knees?

The thing is, News Corp knows how to get “more leverage in its relationship with Google and other platforms.” It’s the oldest publisher m.o.: Gain enough power through your editorial page and news slant to convince politicians it’s easier to do your bidding than to cross you. Hey, it just worked out great in Australia! (Said News Corp CEO Robert Thomson: “Particular thanks are certainly due to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Rod Sims and his able team, along with the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who have stood firm for their country and for journalism.”)

“News will be transformed by Knewz”

Eighteen months later, I think we know how this one turned out.

Look, if you want to make a mediocre conservative news aggregator, make a mediocre conservative news aggregator! If you want to make OnlyFans and teachers behaving badly your core beats, fine! But don’t cloak it in fairy tales about fighting the platforms and helping the little guy and battling clickbait and bias.

  1. In the comments, please leave your own take on what Dow Jones CEO Robert Thomson is saying here. Is “nous” used here in the “term from classical philosophy for the faculty of the human mind necessary for understanding what is true or real” sense? Is it the French nous, meaning “we”? If, presumably, it’s the former: British pronunciation or American? Is “nous” supposed to rhyme with “Knewz”/”news” or “house“? Or has Knewz been pronounced “nowss” all this time? Thomson is Australian, if that helps. ↩︎
POSTED     July 14, 2021, noon
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