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.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide