How NewsNow fought off legal threats and media scorn to aggregate 13,000 publishers

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

For 22 years a doughty British entrepreneur has been using the internet to challenge the media echo chamber by building a network that links to a staggering 13,000 news sources.

Struan Bartlett has repeatedly fought off legal challenges from major publishing empires who have sought to cast him as a news parasite. Yet his NewsNow business has continued to thrive as a growing and profitable enterprise, attracting 10 to 15 million visitors a month to its uniquely diverse presentation of the news.

Part of its attraction is its speed – NewsNow’s algorithms relentlessly scour the websites of its sources, visiting each on a 5 to 10 minute cycle and instantly uploading new articles into myriad searchable categories.

With social media suffering a crisis of trust as a gateway to reliable journalism, Bartlett says NewsNow is positioned to grow its audience and is planning expansion in the US market. “This is an audience that appreciates getting news from lots of publications and ones they didn’t even know about,” Bartlett says. ‘We think it’s a growing market because of dissatisfaction with coverage of contentious issues – eg Brexit – and awareness of the limitations of getting news through social media. We are well-positioned to provide an alternative general news service.”

NewsNow has built its business on a strategy of auctioning its online inventory for programmatic advertising. It has so far shunned editorial imagery in favour of a spartan text-only presentation but is exploring development of an added service that is more visual and aimed at a “whole new audience” of general news consumers.

News echo chambers and filter bubbles are concepts largely associated with the growth of social media. But Bartlett, 45, says they pre-date the digital revolution. His original motivation for founding NewsNow, back in the early days of consumer access to the internet, was to use online technology to allow audiences a diversity of journalism beyond their chosen daily newspaper.

“I had long felt that people were getting their news through a different kind of echo chamber – they would read one newspaper or watch one TV news channel and there were narratives which I didn’t think told the whole story,” he says. "I thought we can make a positive difference in the world and give people access to news from all angles; from established news brands and also from smaller independent but credible news outlets.”

Today NewsNow aggregates the reporting of not just the mainstream media but also reputable bloggers, charities, trade unions, government agencies and others. "You do not need to be a traditional news publisher to count, we think there are lots of models that can produce good quality news,” he says. Football fans are among NewsNow’s most loyal users, customising their searches to get the latest transfer speculation or injury news concerning their favourite teams.

All sources – even football gossip sites – must meet “basic minimum standards” before they are approved by a seven-strong editorial team led by editor Craig Bloomfield. Each new source is subjected to an audit of its historical content and editorial standards. “We are looking to ensure that there is no fake news at all,” says Bartlett. “There are no Macedonian fake-news startups – they can’t just get onto NewsNow. That’s impossible.”

A new threat emerges

NewsNow has a staff of 22 and the site generates 200m page views per month.

But the site’s future could also be threatened by the new so-called “link tax”, Article 11 of the European Copyright Directive passed by the European Council last month. Departing EC President Jean-Claude Juncker has claimed that the directive is “making copyright rules fit for the digital age”.

The controversial legislation is seen as a way for publishers to claw back revenues from the tech giants who dominate the digital advertising market. But Bartlett says aggregation sites like his could be collateral victims. “We think it’s ill-conceived and going to be harmful,” he says. “We don’t think it is going to be a good thing and we are evaluating what the implications are going to be for our business.”

From the outset, NewsNow’s journey hasn’t been easy. It’s exactly a decade since Bartlett penned an “Open Letter to the UK’s national, regional and local newspapers” in response to their repeated threats of legal action and claims that NewsNow was “undermining” the industry’s business. “We don’t do you any harm, “ he protested. “We deliver you traffic and drive you revenues you otherwise wouldn’t have received.”

Today’s publishing landscape has changed greatly since that 2009 declaration against publishers who branded NewsNow and other aggregators “content kleptomaniacs” and “cheap worthless technological news solutions”. The Times introduced its paywall in 2010 and since then several other major news publishers have switched to metered models of restricted content access. Raw traffic is no longer seen as the path to a sustainable future.

Bartlett says the attitude of publishers towards his site has gone in “cycles” over 22 years and remains “a bit conflicted”. The first legal challenges arrived soon after he launched with links to just six sources. Back then, Bartlett was a London-based technology journalist with computer programming as his hobby. He wrote the code for NewsNow’s website himself and funded it with his own money.

Within two years it was profitable, having generated the 1m page views a month necessary to bring in online advertising. In its early days, NewsNow was a digital disruptor to the media monitoring business, which in analogue form demanded “incredibly manual labour-intensive activity, involving sitting up through the night reading newspapers and photocopying them”. A service offering instant digital links quickly proved lucrative.

NewsNow also explored B2B news services for the early websites of blue chip companies who wanted to use news headlines to draw an audience. When that market became overcrowded and NewsNow withdrew, it became less of a target for the newspaper companies. “They decided they weren’t going to focus their energies on us anymore but on the B2B services.”

For the past decade, NewsNow has run its business on programmatic ads.

Its editorial team does not operate a conventional newsroom. Its role is to manage relationships with the thousands of publishers, and to guard against breaches of NewsNow’s editorial standards (for example, stories must be original and not “rehashed”, quotes must be attributed, and hate speech is banned under a Code of Conduct).

The team has a key role in building and modifying the algorithms which determine where stories appear on the site. “It’s not writing news directly but it’s a creative editorial function, working out how to curate the content that is out there and packaging it in a way that is going to make most sense to the audience. Humans are very much guiding what the algorithms do,” Bartlett says.

He differentiates NewsNow from the gamut of other single platforms providing multiple-source news content. Unlike some other aggregators, NewsNow has no commercial relationship with publishers and is under no pressure to prioritise their content.

Reddit is essentially a “social media site”, he argues, while Google News lacks the “thousands of different topic pages” available on NewsNow.

“You can find breaking news on Twitter but I’m not sure I would call it a ‘platform for news’,” Bartlett says. “I think it’s a platform for comment and tweets and for anybody to say what they want. There is little editorial oversight by Twitter of the content.” NewsNow is “not a free for all”, he adds. Every source that has been added to the site has been selected by the staff for its perceived quality.

The Drudge Report has a right-wing political leaning, and NewsNow has no affiliation, he points out. “Our values are about credibility of news and that comes from facts, evidence, substantiation, attribution, balance, and not providing news that is true but only presents one side of the story.”

It’s an ambitious claim for a site that hosts links to such a vast trove of information. Bartlett says that for 22 years NewsNow has been dedicated to “the aim of improving society” by boosting media plurality.

Now that publishers have come to realise that social media is not the silver bullet they once hoped it was, they might be more trusting of this aggregator’s claim to be nothing but a friend to news.

“Everyone we are linking to on NewsNow today is benefiting,” Bartlett insists. “They are all receiving traffic from NewsNow and if anyone didn’t want to be featured they would tell us and we would remove it.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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