From across cyberspace the readers came. Overwhelmingly, they arrived after spotting this titillating link on a news site called the Drudge Report: "L.A. Times Shock: 'I am a Transsexual Sportswriter.' "
"I knew this would play big in Los Angeles, but I was getting e-mails from Australia, Canada, Turkey, England, France, all across Europe," the veteran sportswriter says.
By day's end, the link to the column accounted for nearly 25% of visits to latimes.com — testimony not only to the power of Penner's confessional but also to the unrivaled influence of Internet pioneer Matt Drudge.
Every day, journalists and media executives in newsrooms across the land hope they'll have something that catches Drudge's fancy — or, as he has put it, "raises my whiskers." Most keep their fingers crossed that he'll discover their articles on his own and link to them. Others are more proactive, sending anonymous e-mails or placing calls to him or his behind-the-scenes assistant.
Drudge's following is so large and loyal that he routinely can drive hundreds of thousands of readers to a single story, photo or video through a link on his lively compendium of the news. With media organizations competing fiercely for online audiences, the whims of Matt Drudge can make a measurable difference.
Therein lies the irony.
In the late 1990s, many mainstream journalists gave Drudge a drubbing. They accused him of recklessly advancing his conservative politics with "exclusives" he'd write, often based on tips from partisan operatives.
"An idiot with a modem," huffed MSNBC personality Keith Olbermann. "The country's reigning mischief-maker," said the New York Times. "A menace to honest, responsible journalism," intoned Newsweek investigative reporter Michael Isikoff.
Sometimes Drudge was indeed wrong, like the time he falsely accused Clinton administration official Sidney Blumenthal of spousal abuse.
But usually he was right, most memorably when he disclosed in 1998 that Newsweek magazine had spiked a story on Bill Clinton's White House trysts. It was the first public revelation of the president's relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, and it came from a 32-year-old guy operating out of a $600-a-month apartment in Hollywood.
Although Drudge was promptly denounced as a right-wing lackey with no journalistic standards or standing, his pursuit of the scandal forced the traditional media to jump on the story, too. With a few flicks of his fingers, Drudge had demonstrated the power the Web can bestow upon a lone voice determined to be heard.
Since then, the Internet has emerged as the medium of choice for hard-core news consumers, who increasingly rely on bloggers and aggregators like Drudge to supply links that guide them through the thicket. By getting into the game early and becoming arguably the most recognizable personality online, Drudge was positioned perfectly to capitalize on the behavior of today's audience.
"Obviously, for some journalists, there's a lot of irony that Matt Drudge was a black-hat villain, and now a lot of those same journalists realize that getting a link on his website is crucial to their stories getting wider attention," says Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com. "That's the way the Web works. We're all trying to make sure our journalism is discovered."
New York Times columnist Frank Rich was one of the media heavyweights who took swings at Drudge in those early days, at one point deriding him as "the devil of journalism incarnate." No more.
"Gossip has become so much a part of journalism that what he does doesn't stand out," Rich now says. "My attitude about it has definitely changed. And frankly, I think Drudge has changed, too. He's much more centrist . I certainly look at the site in my idle moments."
Back when Rich and others were taking him to task, Drudge boasted that he was unchanged by his sudden fame. As he told reporters gathered at the National Press Club in Washington in 1998, "I haven't made a penny off the Drudge Report." He called his website, which then had no advertising, a labor of love.
But Drudge learned that there was a market for his labor, thanks to an advertising sales executive who saw the financial potential for both of them.