The Drudge Effect

(Getty Images/Mark Wilson)
I was in the CBSNews.com newsroom for most of election night, and only once did I hear an excited cry of "Yes!" echo through the newsroom. It came not as a result of the Democrats' good night – sorry, bias-obsessed critics – but because the CBS News election page got a prominent link, midway through the evening, from the Drudge Report.

Why the excitement? Well, traffic, of course. According to stats listed on his page Friday, Drudge had more than 23 million visitors in 24 hours.* If just 1/23rd of them click on a CBS News link, it significantly increases traffic to the site. The Drudge phenomenon is not just limited to the digital side of things, however. Back in April, Drudge got his hands on video of a private internal meeting in the "Evening News" newsroom. What does one staffer have up on his screen as CBS News president Sean McManus walks past with a microphone? You guessed it.

Mike Sims, director of news and operations at CBSNews.com, says a link on Drudge or Digg is valuable because it exposes CBSNews.com's content to people who wouldn't otherwise see it. He acknowledges that such a link can more than double traffic to a story, but he says that CBSNews.com would never tailor a story to what someone thinks might make Drudge bite. Is he troubled by Drudge's somewhat lax journalistic standards? Not at all. "He's not touching our content," notes Sims. "He's linking to it."

There are a couple of different ways to characterize Drudge's appeal. If one is feeling charitable, one might point out that he is very good at identifying the stories that the public finds most compelling. While a site like Digg relies on an entire community to identify the stories that people want to click on, Drudge pulls it off more or less by himself.

"Compelling" isn't the word that Drudge's critics would use, however. They'd probably prefer "sensationalistic." Drudge tends to link to stories that appeal less to our intellectual side and more our emotional one – at the moment he offers "'DEEP-FREEZE THERAPY' A MEDICAL BREAKTHOUGH?" – and he is willing to float rumors before there is any significant evidence to back them up. When Drudge turns out to be right – the Monica Lewinksy scandal, for example – getting new information from his site can be thrilling. When he's wrong – the alleged John Kerry intern scandal, for example, which appears to have been entirely fabricated – one is reminded that his site's journalistic standards aren't that different from those at the "News Of The World."

Sims dismisses concerns about associating with Drudge based on the fact that Drudge is simply pointing readers in CBSNews.com's direction. But the relationship is not entirely passive – the folks at CBSNews.com, like their competitors, regularly send stories to Drudge hoping he will link them. Being associated with someone who often relaxes standards in favor of drawing attention, as Drudge does, isn't the most comfortable position for traditional journalists. (Public Eye, we should note here, is linked on Drudge's page, as are many major news outlets.) But outlets want people to see their work, particularly when they are proud of it, and Drudge commands a significant audience -- for better or worse.

There is no evidence that anyone is producing news specifically designed to attract Drudge's attention, but one can't help but worry about his impact. In the drive for audience share, sensationalism plays a role in even the best kinds of journalism -- just look at how overused the word "exclusive" has become. To the extent someone like Drudge contributes to that trend, it's not unreasonable to think news producers would be even more inclined to think in such terms.

Which is perhaps why we should be concerned about this quote from political reporters Mark Halperin and John F. Harris. "With the exception of the ASSOCIATED PRESS, there is no outlet other than the DRUDGE REPORT whose dispatches instantly can command the attention and energies of the most established newspapers and television newscasts," they write. "In the fragmented, remote-control, click-on-this, did you hear? political media world in which we live," they add, "revered Uncle Walter has been replaced by odd nephew Matt."

*Note:It has been brought to our attention that Drudge's self-reported traffic numbers – and we probably should have seen this coming – are less than trustworthy. So take those numbers with the proverbial grain of salt.

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