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 (firstname.lastname@example.org), 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.