If you visited the Drudge Report on July 1, you’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing had changed. A BILLION THANKS FOR MAKING JUNE 2009—TOP JUNE IN DRUDGE REPORT’S 14 YEAR HISTORY!? PAGE HIT 675,406,735 VIEWS FROM 129,922,878 VISITS … TRAFFIC ROSE 21% FOR MONTH OVER YEAR AGO blared the headline on the right of the home page. Matt Drudge’s Web site appeared to be chugging along, sinking its teeth into the news cycle just like it used to.
In the aftermath of Bush v. Kerry in 2004, Drudge’s place in journalism had no parallel. Mark Halperin and John Harris, two major machers of the Washington, D.C., press corps, jointly declared: “Matt Drudge rules our world.” Over the course of a decade, Drudge’s no-frills approach—his original delivery method was e-mail, and some of his early content was gleaned from the trash cans at CBS News—had turned his Web site into a world-beater. In 1998, his exposure of a spiked Newsweek piece on Monica Lewinsky nearly knocked down the Clinton presidency, and six years later, by amplifying the claims of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, he helped torpedo John Kerry’s candidacy.
Drudge was the right’s one-man wrecking crew, feared by liberals and respected by bookers and editors around the country.
It’s easy to look back now and laugh at the hyperbolic quality of Harris and Halperin’s claim, but here’s the thing: at the time, it was strikingly close to the truth.
Since then, though, a number of things have changed in ways that have diminished Drudge’s power. The field of online news has welcomed several explosive upstarts, such as Politico and The Huffington Post (Talking Points Memo, which launched in 2000, has also expanded rapidly since 2004). Such sites have built on the promise of Drudge, mixing hard news and chatter into a stew that generates enormous traffic and an ability to shape the conversation. Meanwhile, the Republicans, to whom Drudge hitched his star, have fallen into disarray, and the mood of the country shifted dramatically with the election of Barack Obama and the onset of the financial crisis.
One sign that Drudge’s influence is on the wane is that he goes to such great lengths to deny it. Take his July 1 boast about page views, which sounds impressive—for a moment. Page-view counts aren’t taken seriously when a site automatically and completely refreshes between fifteen and twenty times an hour, as Drudge’s does—a practice that artificially inflates page-view counts. Moreover, unlike unique visitors, page views are not an accurate reflection of engaged eyeballs, which is what advertisers look for above all else. In fact, if you go strictly by the numbers, Drudge is now a middle-of-the-pack niche product. As of this writing, Alexa, Amazon’s Web site counter, lists Drudge as the 704th most popular site on the Internet. (Politico is 2,078 and The Huffington Post is 331.) Compete.com, which tracks Web traffic over time, tells a fuller story: in June of 2008, all three sites had around two million unique visitors. Since then, The Huffington Post’s numbers have soared, reaching 6.7 million in June. Drudge and Politico have both seen their traffic rise slightly, yet remain under the three million mark monthly.
As his competition has grown and become more dynamic, Drudge’s formula has remained essentially unchanged. There are the links to stories that affirm his brand of conservatism, with its focus on the tyranny of taxation, the media’s liberal bias, and the weakness of Democratic politicians, especially on matters of foreign policy. There are the links to stories that reflect his idiosyncratic tastes—JAPAN ROBOTS ON MOON BY 2020! screamed the site on April 3. The Drudge Report is stubbornly invulnerable to user participation—no one blogs, no one comments. The Huffington Post and Politico, meanwhile, host large and loyal armies of readers who interact with one another and with the site’s writers. (And TPM’S readers famously helped the site drive the U.S. attorneys scandal in 2007, for which TPM won a Polk Award.) In the age of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, community building is the name of the game. But not at the Drudge Report, which remains Drudge’s private kingdom.