Just over a month ago, Linda Douglass, a former ABC News correspondent and current communications director for the Obama administration’s Health Reform Office, appeared in a video posted on the White House’s official blog titled “Facts Are Stubborn Things.”
In the video, the Drudge Report was displayed on one of the computer screens at her desk. Peering over her red-framed glasses, Ms. Douglass read one of the headlines posted on the site: “Uncovered Video: Obama Explains How His Healthcare Plan Will ‘Eliminate’ Private Insurance.”
“Well, nothing can be farther from the truth,” Ms. Douglass said into the camera. “The people who always try to scare people whenever you try to bring them health-insurance reform are at it again. And they’re taking sentences and phrases out of context, and they’re cobbling them together to leave a very false impression.”
Ms. Douglass’ three-minute video was part of the administration’s viral offensive against misconceptions about the president’s health care plan. In that battle, the Drudge Report, Matt Drudge’s news-aggregation site, was Enemy No. 1.
For some, including the White House, the Drudge Report is still an online media powerhouse. The Drudge Report is No. 115 in Quantcast’s list of most popular sites, ranking higher than washingtonpost.com, nypost.com and politico.com. That’s 1.1 million visitors every day, each of whom refresh the page about 15 times in a 24-hour period, according to Quantcast.
But, contrary to what some might think, fewer and fewer of those visitors seem to be the journalists that were once so captivated by Matt Drudge—not to mention his vaguely terror-inducing headlines, taste for the obscure and occasionally spinning siren light. Is it because of increased competition online? Fewer scoops? Or simple Drudge fatigue?
Has Matt Drudge lost his edge?
“Obviously, when Drudge started in the ’90s, he was a kind of phenomenon,” said Peter Baker, who was the Washington Post’s White House correspondent during the Clinton years. “He invented this whole new way of getting information out there, and he changed the landscape of what the mainstream media did. Everyone was on Drudge, checking him every day.”
Even when the Drudge Report’s stories were sensationalized or unfounded, the urge to keep clicking was irresistible. “There was something very titillating about it because he didn’t have the same kind of limitations or standards that the old-style, I guess, media did,” he said.
“Today, Drudge is still a force,” continued Mr. Baker, who now covers the White House for The New York Times. “He’s just not the only one. He still can propel a story. He can still get people talking about something. But he doesn’t have a monopoly on it anymore.”
Mr. Baker hears less and less from coworkers and colleagues, “Did you see what’s on Drudge?”
Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, concurred.
“Your email is the first time anyone—staff, reader, anyone—has mentioned Drudge to me in ages,” he replied via email. “During the campaign it sometimes served to stir the embers of right-wing indignation against The Times, usually by printing a cockeyed version of something we were supposedly about to publish,” he said.
“It’s probably been a year since I looked at the Drudge report, or felt its impact in any way,” Mr. Keller added.
Jonathan Weisman, who covers the Obama administration for The Wall Street Journal, seemed to back up that idea. “Matt Drudge has no influence whatsoever,” he said. “When Drudge picks up one of our stories, it’s incredible. It lights up the boards; all of a sudden, it’s the most linked-to story on the Web site.” Yet the uptick in clicks doesn’t really register as success—it’s almost like a bubble. When his editor notes that a story has crazy traffic on The Journal’s site, Mr. Weisman shrugs. “I’m like, ‘Eh, it’s because it was linked on Drudge,’” he said.
In terms of looking for scoops or insider news on his own beat, Mr. Weisman looks elsewhere. “I’ll actually go to the Huffington Post to see if they’re floating something,” he said.
The Huffington Post, launched in May 2005 as a kind of liberal-aggregator answer to the seemingly conservative-leaning site, actually beat Drudge in unique visitors for the first time in February 2008, “and never looked back,” emailed Thomas Edsall, the site’s political editor. “I don’t check [Drudge] to speak of. He has not broken many stories and his web site has not been updated to become more attractive by making use of graphics or other multi-media forms of communication.”
That’s an understatement! Certainly, Drudge hasn’t changed its three-column, Courier-fonted, photo-light format.
But, perhaps, now that Politico, the Huffington Post and even Twitter users are seemingly live-blogging, video recording and photographing every political move, Drudge’s lo-fi needling is less dazzling. Other sites like Talking Points Memo cover some of the political obscurities that were Drudge’s bread and butter—and add their own commentaries, photo displays and enriched data. Today, especially for members of the media who have become increasingly tech-savvy as their jobs have demanded it, less may no longer be more.
As Mr. Drudge retreats to sunny landscapes like Tel Aviv, Geneva and Las Vegas, some reporters that spoke to The Observer wondered if he would soon leave behind the dark world of Washington for good. Several reporters and editors who previously touted Mr. Drudge’s influence in profiles and books replied that they had “no comment” or did not return several phone calls by deadline.
Mr. Baker, The Times’ White House correspondent, warned not to underestimate Mr. Drudge. “His original content aggregation is still important,” he said. “He has a really interesting news sense and he doesn’t pick out stories the same way that The New York Times or The Washington Post would. They are captivating in their own way.”
Still, Mr. Keller was willing to float a theory about Mr. Drudge’s waning influence. “Maybe he wasn’t the phenomenon trend-watchers thought,” Mr. Keller said. “Maybe he was just a fad—digital-age hula hoop.”
Sounds fun! For a while, at least.
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