"The Internet is going to save the news business." – Matt Drudge, June 2, 1998
Today, on the 15th anniversary of visionary Matt Drudge's speech to the National Press Club, his prophetic words haunt once-flourishing segments of the news industry.
Advertisement - story continues below
According to the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, more Americans now get news from the Internet rather than radio or newspapers. Likewise, Pew notes that TV news is "increasingly vulnerable, as it may be losing its hold on the next generation of news consumers."
It's been almost two decades since Drudge crashed the news scene and turned the Old Media on its head – causing many mainstream newshounds to sneer at the thought of an amateur with wild instinct and an unpretentious news website threatening their media empire.
Drudge, occasionally dressed in only his underwear, rocked the news world from a small Hollywood apartment accompanied only by his black stray feline, aptly named "Cat."
Mainstream Media gatekeepers have groaned and scoffed at the mere mention of his name, even calling him the "devil of journalism incarnate." Once dubbed the "country's reigning mischief-maker" by the New York Times and "Sludge" by former President Bill Clinton, Drudge scours the Web for intriguing stories and breaking news to post on the Drudge Report, the mega-hit website he launched in 1995.
Advertisement - story continues below
Drudge captured worldwide attention in 1998 when he broke the news of former President Bill Clinton's sexual affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. While Newsweek had the Lewinsky scoop first, the magazine spiked the story. Drudge, working from the apartment he once called "the most dangerous newsroom in America," bucked the big journalistic machine and blasted the affair into national headlines.
"The Drudge vibe defined the time," recalled Scott Baker, editor of the Blaze.
"His news sensibility is, of course, legendary," Baker told WND. "But when we think about 'disruptive' business models, Drudge disrupted like a nuclear bomb. One guy and a keyboard."
The Drudge Report was also first to report the death of Princess Diana to an American audience, early box office results and the NBC-Microsoft merger, among other major events through the years.
Advertisement - story continues below
Little Drudge plays editor
Who is this rebellious mastermind who ushered in the rebirth of modern news gathering?
His 2000 book, "Drudge Manifesto," co-authored by the late Julia Phillips, chronicled the Web-news pioneer's early days as a news junkie.
Advertisement - story continues below
Drudge recalled his childhood when "talk radio tucked me in at night and the police scanner was my unconditional best friend."
He was barely a teen when he began his newspaper delivery route in Takoma Park, Md.
"Each day after junior high school, I would load up the cart and hit the sidewalks. Newspaperboy Drudge. … Most days I wouldn't get to each and every address on my route," he wrote.
"That might've been because I stopped to read the entire paper on a park bench one block from my house before I even started.
"On the bench, I would play editor.
"I noticed how their lead story was not really the lead story. How the hottest news was buried on the inside pages and the best reporting was riding at the end of the copy when it should have been at the beginning.
"I'd rewrite my own headlines for an audience of one. Not counting the squirrels."
Drudge also worked at 7-Eleven, where he had access to early newspaper editions.
"Every morning at about 2 o'clock the bulldog editions of all the major papers would be dropped off right at my doorstep," he recalled.
"I couldn't wait to get my hands on them.
"While the rest of the city slept, I'd read fresh headlines and bylines – first, before anyone else.
"The predawn customers would get an earful.
"I was never sure why I cared about being first, but boy did I feel connected when I was."
But Drudge knew he'd never break into the news world the old-fashioned way.
"Every time, it seemed, I'd end up at the Washington Post Newsroom on 15th [Street], I'd look up longingly, knowing I'd never get in," he wrote. "Didn't attend the right schools. Never enjoyed any school, in fact. My father was not the son of a famous drunken Southern senator, nor was I even remotely connected to a powerful publishing dynasty."
Drudge collected celebrity scoops as he worked as a CBS gift-shop clerk folding and delivering T-shirts in California. At CBS, he would eavesdrop on conversations, intercept memos and volunteer in the mail room.
When his father bought him his first computer from Radio Shack in 1994, Drudge learned how to post his entertainment and political scoops on the Internet. Then he collected email addresses for the list he would later call the Drudge Report.
"One reader turned into five," Drudge explained to the National Press Club in 1998. "Then it turned into 100. Faster than you could say, 'I never had sex with that woman,' it was 1,000, 5,000, 100,000 people. The ensuing website practically launched itself."
In 1998, Drudge received 6 million page views in one month.
Today, that number has skyrocketed to 900 million.
"Clearly there is a hunger for unedited information, absent corporate considerations," Drudge prophesied at the time. "Exalted minds … didn't appear to have a clue what this Internet's gonna do, what we're going to make of it, what this is all going to turn into. But I have glimpses. …
"We have entered an era vibrating with the din of small voices. Every citizen can be a reporter, can take on the powers that be. The difference between the Internet, television, radio, magazines, newspapers is the two-way communication.
"The Net gives as much voice to a 13-year-old computer geek like me as to a CEO or speaker of the House. We all become equal. And you would be amazed what the ordinary guy knows."
Drudge briefly hosted a Fox News show called "Drudge" from 1998 to 1999 and was a radio talk-show host until 2007.
'He's an authentic genius'
David Jackson, executive editor of the Washington Times, told WND, "Matt Drudge has proven year after year that the secret to growing audiences online is not fancy web design and bells and whistles; it's knowing your audience and what they want to read about. When it comes to news, the Drudge Report is still the single best aggregation site out there."
In an interview with WND, Tucker Carlson, co-founder and editor of the Daily Caller, explained, "Drudge's news judgment is entirely his own, and that is a rare thing among editors. Virtually everybody else is looking up to see what his peers are doing. Drudge trusts his own instincts on what qualifies as news. He has a remarkable ability to tell a story with other people's headlines."
He added, "There's a reason he's dominated Internet news for more than 15 years: He's an authentic genius."
Stephen K. Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News, said Drudge brought news "narrative" to the Web.
"Before Drudge, news articles were presented to the public as if they existed in a vacuum," Bannon told WND. "The Drudge Report connects the headlines to one-another in a way that tells a story much broader than the sum of the individual headlines.
"And on top of that, he was among the first to embrace the 24-hour news cycle. The news doesn't wait for the morning papers to go to print or the evening news to broadcast, and it's those two concepts that have made Drudge a visionary and a leader."
The emergence of Drudge's website inspired a wave of fresh Internet news sites through the years, including WND.
"I can honestly say that without Drudge, there would be no WND," said editor and CEO Joseph Farah. "I'm sure that would please many people in America – especially those in power and in establishment media circles. But Matt was clearly our inspiration. He blazed the trail."
Farah revealed that he even tried to hire Drudge many years ago.
"Oh, how I wish he took me up on that offer! It was Drudge who showed us it was possible to have an impact in the news business without spending $100 million getting started," he said. "He showed us the how the Internet leveled the playing field. And he blew up the barriers the media gatekeepers had erected and maintained for so many years. Drudge rocks today just like he did back then."
Breitbart News Editor Ben Shapiro, who called Drudge the "father of conservative Internet journalism and activism," told WND, "His ability to shift a news cycle is unparalleled. The left tries to pretend that Drudge is just some muckraker living out of an undisclosed location. In actuality, he's the most powerful news shaper of our generation."
In April, talk-radio giant Rush Limbaugh declared, "The New York Times should be doing what Drudge is doing. If they're really interested in the news, and they're really interested in … people being informed, all the news fit to print, but they don't do it. It's a niche that Matt came along and filled quite ably."
Love him or hate him, even the White House checks his website frequently. In March 2010, Drudge reported that his site received 10,825 hits from the White House in just nine days. The White House did not respond to WND's requests for comment on the impact of the Drudge Report.
The Obama administration has scolded reporters for citing the Drudge Report, publicly warning them, "Be mindful of your sources." Also, in April, White House Senior Adviser Dan Pfeiffer condemned media reliance on the Drudge Report for news content.
"It's not that it drives our conversation in our world. I'm fairly ambivalent to what Drudge puts up on a daily basis," Pfeiffer said. "This is less true now than it was before, but there's a Pavlovian response from, you know, some media outlets."
He admitted that Drudge's site "hurts" the Obama administration's message.
"Anyone saying anything can get caught up in the spin cycle in a way that is very damaging," Pfeiffer told Politico. "It hurts what we're trying to do, but then it is very damaging to that individual person."
Now, the 46-year-old media kingpin who began his wholly independent website as a one-man operation in his apartment runs the Drudge Report with the help of two assistants and lives a private life in South Florida, where he continues to forge his own path in the industry.
"Beyond his news instincts, what I most admire about Drudge is his relentless independence," said Scott Baker, editor of the Blaze. "He likes what he likes and is never in anyone's pocket."
In fact, Drudge's widespread appeal is largely due to that fiercely independent spirit.
"Since I cover the Makeup out of The Chair, I can report candidly on nefarious activities," he explained in his 2000 New York Times best-seller. "I've discovered and revealed dozens of media blow-ups, fake-outs and frauds perpetrated by frauds, fakers and blow-by-blowers. …
"I'm not beholden to them in any way.
"I'm not carried on their air.
"I'm not a byline in their dirty print.
"I don't use their bandwidth.
"I have created my own 'paper' printed on my own 'presses.'
"Distributed on my own.
"Technology has finally caught up with liberated individuals. [W]e call it 'freedom of the brain.'"
Watch Drudge's historic 1998 speech to the National Press Club below: