What it's like to be Drudged

Adam Taylor got a month's readers in a day thanks to a link from the Drudge Report. But, he wonders, is the Conservative icon's power waning?

It’s a weird feeling, being “Drudged”.

I remember my first time. I had written a short story about an attempted terrorist attack on the US Embassy in Sarajevo, and found some amateur footage of the attack on YouTube. The story went up on our site shortly after the news broke, but the attack itself had proved uneventful and traffic to the story died quickly.

Then Matt Drudge found it. Pretty soon it was the top headline on the Drudge Report, the gargantuan news portal that is dominating the US news cycle for the fourth election in a row. In less than an hour, 80,000 or so people had clicked through the link — probably more than would click on the next 50 stories I wrote. It seemed a little odd that Drudge had chosen the story, but whatever. A murmur went throughout the newsroom. I was congratulated.

For reporters and writers at cash-strapped American online news outlets such as myself, how many people click on your story is sometimes read as how important it is. It also means, roughly, how financially valuable you are to your editors. Those 80,000 visitors and the page-views they provided were probably worth a sizable portion of my monthly salary (and that was a relatively small Drudge hit — the site has been known to send a million visitors).

That Drudge can send that much traffic is pretty remarkable. The site has barely changed since it was started in 1997, and the design is barely one step away from a late 1990s “Geocities” domain — take the “Drudge siren”, the crude animated gif that sits adjacent to the most scandalous headlines, for example.

Despite the bare-bones design, the site has something many others do not — visitors. Just recently Drudge announced that the site gets over 1 billion pageviews a month, while independent figures (which tend to skew lower) suggest over 14 million visitors a month — almost three times the amount of visitors he had during the last election. That is a lot of eyeballs, and, unlike any other news organisation of a similar size, Drudge is willing to send those eyeballs away.

In contrast to the other websites that can send online news organisations a lot of traffic — such as Reddit, Facebook, or Google News — Drudge’s links are not only bigger, but also based on the whims of one person (though Drudge does have a few other editorial members of staff). As such, it’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about why Drudge is choosing the stories he chooses. 

Despite his conservative, libertarian beliefs, he will happily link to a website perceived as liberal, such as the New York Times. That link, however, could sit next to one to Infowars, a far cruder website created by conservative radio host Alex Jones — part of the fringe right wing blogosphere that has flourished with the benefit of Drudge traffic. Some outlets, such as the Washington Times, have been accused of having a shady relationship with Drudge and his editors.

How can someone get Drudge to link to something? Well you can try emailing him (drudge@drudgereport.com), though I personally have never had any success. I hear he responds to instant messages on occasion. Sometimes its easier to understand why Drudge doesn’t link to some stories than why he links to others (Earlier this year Gawker edited a story in the process of being “Drudged” to include a note on the rumours that Matt Drudge was gay. The link was swiftly swapped).

Perhaps it’s easiest to see the editorial direction on the site by looking at Drudge’s “exclusives”, the tidbits of information that Drudge actually publishes himself. Drudge famously broke open the Monica Lewinsky news in 1998 — a move that truly established his website as a major player. But this election cycle many of his exclusives have missed the mark. A story about General Petraeus being chosen as Mitt Romney’s running mate proved inaccurate, and another about ABC News running a story about Newt Gingrich’s ex-wife was simply boring.

At the start of the month we saw a great example of the modern-day Drudge scoop. “Curious tape dropping tonight,” Matt Drudge tweeted from his personal Twitter account. “NOT from MOTHERJONES. Will cause controversy, ignite accusations of racism -- in both directions!” The exclusive? The news that a video about Obama that was due to appear on the conservative website the Daily Caller and be shown on Fox News that night. It turned out to be a dud, widely reported in the past anyway. Drudge’s meta-scoop — that a video from another website would be shown on Fox news — fell flat.

No matter the quality of these “exclusives”, they’re inevitably widely reported. They’re usually the top story on the website I work for and others. Journalists argue amongst themselves about why they should give the stories attention, but the reality is if Drudge reports on it, it’s news. It’s hard to think of any other single person in the US or the UK for that matter who holds that much power. Rupert Murdoch may be the only person who comes close. That power is remarkable, and Drudge has built a unique, perhaps even revolutionary media company, worth as much as $375 million.

It’s common for American journalists — typically college-educated and living on the coasts — to admit they don’t know actually know anyone who actually reads Drudge. However, few who look at the numbers can deny that a Drudge link can be the thing that changes a story from an also-ran into a success. Does it affect how they write? Perhaps not directly, but it undoubtedly affects the general tone of journalism, especially within the right wing media (for example, you probably won’t be surprised to discover the GOP candidate Drudge was supporting during the primaries).

However, as his power has grown, Matt Drudge has gradually removed himself further from public life. He has become, by some accounts, a recluse. For journalists in America, the fact that the most powerful man in media won’t explain himself at all is somewhat disconcerting. For me, personally, I still have no real idea why I was “Drudged”, and frankly I have no idea what I have to do to make it happen again. But I kinda hope it does.

The front page of the Drudge Report today.

Adam Taylor is a journalist from London who has lived in the USA for the last four years. He currently works as an editor for Business Insider in New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @mradamtaylor.

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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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