Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Drudge, Round 2

Even at the threat of beating a dead horse, it would seem to me that I left some points unmade in yesterday's quick entry about the extraordinary financial success of the Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com). And simply put, it's this: advertising dollars follow audience--eventually. It's been an iron rule of media physics since there have been media--pre-Gutenberg, probably going back to cave paintings in prehistoric times (actually, these early scrawlings helped begin the clock on recorded history).
During the web gold rush of the late '90s, fashionable Interneties kept pounding the theme of the importance of buzz and the number of eyeballs (and "monetizing" those eyeballs, a ghastly usage) and growing big, fast. And like nearly everything during that era of comic excess, it was all both far too glib to last, but at the same time these mantras contained much more than inklings of truth. Human nature being what it is, most folks too easily believed the most extreme optimism about web advertising then, just as they subsequently embraced the post-crash, end-of-the-world scenarios. The truth, as always, was somewhere in between.
And a related truth, as Drudge has found out, is that "sustained" buzz, over several years--a tough thing to pull off--can build a real business. Especially on the web, where technology can far more efficiently track the effectiveness of particular ads than in any other medium (the ancient, and mostly true, statement about print and TV ads is that "I'm wasting half my spending on this ad, but I just don't know which half." The web ends that fuzziness).
But that years-long buzz can't be done with smoke and mirrors, but only with old-fashioned showing-up-every-day-and-working kind of effort. Love him or hate him, Drudge has kept at his thing, even after he left his cramped Hollywood apartment and moved to nicer digs in Miami (and added a single news assistant). He kept the site butt-ugly but useful, focusing on finding quick links to the most interesting things on the web (at least interesting to a few million of his readers) and even breaking a little of his own news through a variety of snitches (called "sources" by more respectable journalists), many in the highest profile newsrooms in the land. In other words, he delivered enough real value to enough people in the paying public that even the business side of the august New York Times has since found value in reaching his audience via banner ads, even while their editorial-side brethren continue to simply dismiss him as a mixture of joke and public nuisance, on the rare occasion that they even deign to take note of him.
Anyone with some long-term perspective of business and some elemental understanding of media understood that at some point the thicket of competing web advertising models would find some traction (no, people didn't want to pay per-click on banner ads when it became clear that almost no one was clicking on them, but simple ad "impressions" do count for something, especially when there are millions of them) and the whole sector would begin to recover from its all-but-total crash of 2000-2002. After all, the entire media advertising industry--print, TV, web and everything else, went through its worst year-to-year percentage decline last year since 1938, in the depths of the Great Depression! It wasn't only the newest medium that was suffering, everybody was crunched. But anyone with eyes could see that people were increasingly going to the web for news, information, entertainment, play, etc.--in other words, the world was embracing the web--and that advertisers would eventually follow.
Again, let me hasten to add that I'm not really a Drudge fan. I don't care for his politics, and I never went for his hokey schtick. At the same time, only a fool would argue against the notion that he's a bona fide web pioneer, whether or not you think it's journalism as you understand that term to be. And only a similarly foolish person, at least in my view, would fail to at least grudgingly (Drudgingly?) respect his persistence at sticking with the site for the better part of the last decade. As Woody Allen memorably observed, 80% of success is just showing up...
Okay, I'd say we're done with the Drudge phenomenon now for quite some time. Can't say that I'll miss the fedora...


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