You have to be wary when someone declares the death of something big. It's an easy thing to say, with ample bravado of course, that history is dead, that metaphysics is dead, or that the book, the magazine, the newspaper, or whatever else are all dead. But it's rarely true.
Michael Wolff, the Vanity Fair contributor, Rupert Murdoch biographer, and early Internet-industry commentator, came out last week to declare the death of what has long been considered the most influential online news outlet in America. "I do not think Drudge has disappeared," Wolff wrote in a scathing piece for Newser.com, which he helps run, "I think he's dead." And if the man himself hasn't actually flatlined then "he's definitely brain dead."
According to Wolff, the Drudge Report is a long-gone bygone, little more than the "leftover" tatters of transitional late 1990s media. He argues that the Drudge Report hasn't changed in years, that Matt Drudge hasn't done anything new, expanded his business, or even expanded his pay role, which, according to Wolff, is limited to Drudge and blogger Andrew Breitbart. (Ironically, one arrow Wolff slings at Drudge is that the famous internet newsman is "out of the loop." However, those "in the loop" have heard credible rumors that the relationship between Drudge and Breitbart has undergone a major change.)
Wolff also sneers a little at Drudge's monthly site visit count, or at least at the New Republic's reporting that Drudge sees "20 million hits per day" -- a statistic Wolff calls a "meaningless locution." He points out quite casually that, according to Compete.com, Drudge Report receives just 2.6 million unique visits a month - a sum that "clearly isn't going to make him millions."
Taking a quick look at the traffic for Wolff's Newser.com while heeding Wolff's wisdom about what it takes to make money from web traffic, a casual observer might end up very concerned for Michael Wolff's financial well-being. With Newser scraping together about 600,000 unique monthly visitors, the site's traffic clearly isn't going to make Wolff millions either - or even hundreds of thousands.
But Wolff knows that. He is arguably one of the sharpest and smartest media observers in the country. A few years ago I had the privilege of meeting him through a mutual friend for coffee. He spoke lucidly about things as varied as the possibilities for digital media storage and the future of the magazine industry. But the thing that stuck with me most was his discussion about new media and a very simple but (at the beginning of the Web 2.0 craze) non-obvious notion that content is still king and that it never abdicated.
This is exactly what is so surprising about Wolff's commentary on the Drudge Report: Matt Drudge wasn't just the first online media outlet to pay fealty to content-as-king (maybe he wasn't the first at all), but he was the only one to maintain his loyalty to content. Michael Wolff criticizes Drudge for not changing his style and, presumably, even the layout of the site. But that is precisely the power behind Drudge's draw.
Wolff's boldest accusation, however, is that Drudge hasn't caught a breaking headline in months. Bad timing for Wolff: it was the very next day when Drudge linked to a short and relatively obscure Reuters AlertNet article about a "strange new swine flu." "Seven people hit by strange new swine flu", were Drudge's headlined words. By comparison, the New York Times' coverage of the flu at that point was... nil. In other words, a one-page website run by a one-man operation caught the story that subsequently engulfed the entire media a full day before the New York Times - a multi-billion dollar media corporation with a newsroom of roughly 1,000 people.
But there's a very simple media litmus test which tells us much more than all of this. Think about the last time you asked someone, or someone asked you, "Did you see Drudge today?", and then think of the last time you asked someone (or someone asked you), "Did you see Newser.com today?" Wolff is often right on media issues, and often well before anyone else. But in this case one has to wonder if it isn't just a case of audience envy.