Jul 21, 2020 - Economy

🚨 Shock book: Drudge vs. the algorithms

In an upcoming book about Matt Drudge's life and influence, author Matthew Lysiak, a former New York Daily News reporter, says Drudge is frustrated by the way the unwieldy internet — driven by algorithms and big social media sites — has disrupted the American psyche.

Data: Parse.ly; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: Parse.ly; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Why it matters: Drudge has been a dominant force in the trafficking of news and information online since the early days of internet publishing. But in recent years, data shows that the reclusive digital maverick doesn't push traffic to publishers like he used to, although he's still considered a powerful force.

  • "There’s already automated news sites. Google News, hello anybody? They actually, the idiots reading that crap think there’s actually a human there," Lysiak cites Drudge telling Alex Jones in 2015 in an interview.
  • "There is no human there! You are being programmed to being automated even up to your news. And, Apple News, I don’t know what that’s about. That was also creepy."
  • "A same corporate glaze over everything. I don’t see the world that way. I live in a world that’s free, colorful, vibrant, takes chances, bold, stands up to power, and that’s where I’ve made my success."
  • "I’m just warning this country that, yes, don’t get into this false sense that you are an individual when you’re on Facebook. No. You’re Not. You’re a pawn in their scheme."

"The Drudge Revolution," on sale next Tuesday, paints Drudge as a cutthroat businessman, who's more agnostic to politics than his website would let on.

  • "Matt Drudge is first and foremost a business man and a brilliant one," Lysiak says in an interview with Axios. "His interest is not in political loyalties. It's in page hits."

Yes, but: Despite Drudge's aversion to the big corporate news aggregators, they seem to have captured the attention of the distracted 21st-century news consumer.

  • By late 2018, The Drudge Report was no longer a top 10 referrer of internet traffic to publisher websites, according to traffic analytics company Parse.ly.
  • Today, it's fallen to #12, and drives roughly the same amount of traffic overall as Pinterest.
  • Total traffic to publishers' websites within Parse.ly's network from Drudge Report dropped 14% from 2018 to 2019, and continues to do so. 

By contrast, news aggregators like SmartNews, Apple News, Flipboard, and apps in the ByteDance (Toutiao) and Google families have gained more traction with U.S. audiences over the years, per Parse.ly.

  • Their success likely has to do with better supporting technology, and the ability as a business to target and retain users.
  • They sometimes come pre-installed on mobile devices, or are expanded off of another product that already had high adoption rates. Simply put: these platforms have a better user adoption model, especially on mobile.

Yes, but: Drudge Report is not alone. Other aggregators like Yahoo and MSN, which used to hold much more digital real estate, have seen similar declines.  

  • And Drudge's continued influence, despite fewer technology investments, shows that the world still craves voice and human curation.

Between the lines: A source close to Drudge tells Axios that he expects 2020 "will likely end up the biggest traffic year in the site's history."

  • Drudge told CNN earlier this year that he has hit record traffic this year, citing traffic numbers from Quantcast.
  • Quantcast is used by many digital publishers to measure traffic, although Comscore is considered the industry standard for advertisers to evaluate traffic to websites.
  • Comscore says that overall traffic (monthly unique visitors) to DrudgeReport.com from May 2016 to May 2020 is down by roughly 36% percent.

Be smart: Drudge Report offers little reliability in an audience growth strategy for publishers these days, but newsroom managers still find a link from Drudge a very welcome traffic boost.

  • Drudge referral traffic tends to vary much more widely than any other platform, Parse.ly notes.
  • While other traffic referral networks, like SmartNews, Twitter and Google News are relatively consistent over time, Drudge Report referrals to publishers still differ wildly month over month, varying anywhere from -31% to +38% from the previous month.

The big picture: The influence of Drudge on the media publishing industry cannot be overstated, despite the fact that it has changed in recent years.

  • To this day, many mainstream publishers still personally pitch Drudge with articles and headlines each day, hoping that he will feature them prominently on his homepage.
  • Some publishers have specific Drudge pitch strategies, that include how many times per day he gets pitched, and with which types of stories. This is especially true for publishers that focus on political news.
  • Articles about "Law, Government, & Politics" are 37% of what people click on DrudgeReport.com, according to Parsely, although articles about "Health & Fitness" are more prominent today, which is no doubt related to the pandemic.

What's next: Lysiak confirms to Axios a Vanity Fair report that his book, out next Tuesday, is being turned into a film. Stay tuned.

Go deeper