Behind The Slow-Motion Death of Howard Kurtz’s Weird Website

BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski noted on Tuesday that The Daily Download, the obscure media-news website founded by Fox News anchor Howard Kurtz and his business partner Lauren Ashburn, has disappeared. Yet only a few months ago Ashburn was hyping the site’s traffic to contributors. “Lauren told me that at one point it had a half million views per day,” Lorraine Murphy, a Vancouver web consultant who wrote for the site between May and August of this year, told Gawker. So what happened?

The most immediate explanation is that Ashburn, who launched the Download with a $230,000 grant the Knight Foundation awarded to Maryland Public Television in 2011, landed a contract with Fox News in August. “I think Lauren was only using the Daily Download for résumé value and now that she has the Fox News job has lost interest,” explained Murphy, who is known among Gawker readers as the veteran commenter Raincoaster.

But other problems have plagued the site, too. One was its rotten reputation, earned in May, for a self-filmed video of Ashburn and Kurtz wrongly accusing gay NBA player Jason Collins of lying to his straight fiancé about his sexuality—an episode that culminated with media reporters David Folkenflik and Dylan Byers castigating Kurtz on his own Sunday morning show, Reliable Sources.

Another was money. Murphy confirmed that the Knight Foundation’s generous grant was running out: “There were funds to keep it running till the end of the year.” (Ashburn told Poynter that the Knight grant had “ended.”) Her last contact with Ashburn, Murphy added, “was reminding her for the umpteenth time about my invoice from August. I finally got that money last week”—that is, in late November. Before that, Murphy offered to take over daily editorial duties, a proposition Kurtz and Ashburn ignored briefly entertained before going radio silent. (The negotiations “withered while I waited to get paid,” Murphy says.)

The money problem arose from the site’s middling traffic, about which Ashburn appears to have been in deep denial. Those half-million viewers? “It was nowhere near that when I came aboard,” said Murphy. Indeed, the site’s most notable traffic source was Howard Kurtz’s personal Twitter account. As Kaczynski noted a year ago, Kurtz relentlessly tweeted Daily Download links despite his position as The Daily Beast’s Washington bureau chief.

Kurtz’s Twitter behavior contributed to a constellation of rumors regarding The Daily Download, whose name eventually turned into a kind of a metonym for Kurtz’s flagging career—which plummeted with precisely the same velocity that Ashburn’s career ascended—and the inching sense that Kurtz is losing his bearings.

These mounting issues spurred Ashburn and Kurtz to quietly pivot the site in hopes of attracting a wider audience. In mid-2013 Ashburn began telling contributors that The Daily Download would shed its technology/business focus and begin producing content aimed at women interested in social media and new gadgets. The founders wanted to move away from insider media news—such as their botched Jason Collins story—and toward more ad-friendly fare.

Within weeks of laying those plans, however, Kurtz “parted company” with The Daily Beast and abandoned his Reliable Sources chair at CNN, leaving his career—and with it, Ashburn’s—in a momentary lurch. But Kurtz quickly negotiated a contract with Fox News to host MediaBuzz, a Sunday morning show designed to compete with Sources. Given Kurtz’s significant investment in his business partner’s media career, it wasn’t at all surprising when Ashburn landed a Fox contract, too. She frequently accompanied Kurtz on CNN, and now appears even more frequently on Fox News.

Neither Ashburn nor Kurtz responded to requests for comment. The Knight Foundation referred Gawker to a 2012 press release when asked to detail the website’s funding.

Update: After this story was published, a rep for The Knight Foundation emailed Gawker to clarify the foundation’s funding of The Daily Download:

The $230,000 Knight grant was made to Maryland Public Television not Lauren Ashburn; she was not the grant recipient. Also this was not a challenge grant so neither MPT nor any other party involved "won" the grant.

(The article has been corrected to reflect this detail.)

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