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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”