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.
"One day in the summer of 2002, I was sitting at home with my 7-month-old boy reading the Drudge Report, and I looked at the advertising," recalled Kevin Lucido, who was on the prowl for his first big client. "I thought Drudge could do better. So I sent him an e-mail. Half an hour later, I couldn't believe it, he called me back."
Lucido, chief executive of Intermarkets Inc., says there are now as many as 1,000 advertisers on the Drudge Report at any given time, including such mainstream media outlets as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Lucido calls Drudge the big kahuna of an online client roster consisting mostly of conservative websites, including that of controversial commentator Ann Coulter. He won't talk about Drudge's income other than to say, "He's done well by us and vice versa."
But here's a clue: Gone is the cramped Hollywood apartment and the little Geo Metro that Drudge used to drive around town. He now lives and works in a $1-million-plus condominium in Miami's super-sleek Four Seasons hotel, "where civilized living reaches its highest form of expression," according to a sales pitch for the residences.
The luxury condos are located on the upper floors of the 70-story building, the tallest in Florida, and offer a dazzling view of Biscayne Bay through floor-to-ceiling windows. Live-ins like Drudge have full access to the hotel's amenities, including a 50,000-square-foot spa and sports club, three pools and daily maid service.
A Times reporter showed up at the hotel hoping to get a glimpse inside Drudge's posh base of operations, where he is said to have a bank of computers he scans. But the press-shy Drudge did not respond to the note slipped under his door by the concierge or to numerous phone calls and e-mails requesting an interview.
THE success of the Drudge Report rests in large part on an audience that comes back multiple times a day to catch up with breaking stories or check out the site's latest offbeat offerings, all presented with a tabloid sensibility befitting the retro "press" fedora Drudge wears in publicity shots. A link to a story on carnage in Iraq may coexist with a headline like this: "91 Feral Cats Kept by Woman in 2 Room Apartment in Boryspil, Ukraine."
According to Nielsen/NetRatings, the Drudge Report received 3 million unique visits in June, with visitors spending an average of 1 hour and 6 minutes on the site. That's a lot of time clicking around, giving advertisers more opportunities to be seen. Nielsen/NetRating's measurements also show that visitors return an average of 20 times a month. Most newspaper websites would be fortunate to draw a quarter as many return visits.
Perhaps no one understands the Drudge Report's sway over this dedicated fan base better than Andrew Breitbart.
An author and son-in-law of actor Orson Bean, Breitbart has described himself as a "raucous, opinionated, red meat-eating libertarian who refuses to be relegated to a conservative ghetto." He's also Drudge's silent partner in picking stories and writing headlines for the site from his home on Los Angeles' Westside. "It's a one-man operation with a second guy," he says, careful not to upstage the boss.
When Breitbart is at the controls of the Drudge Report, which is almost every day, he regularly links to a website that provides up-to-the-minute wire-service stories — a website he created to cash in on Drudge's legions. In its first month of operation in summer 2005, breitbart.com was a runaway success with a reported 2.64 million visits, easily enough to attract quality advertisers. How could it falter when he could personally deliver Drudge's audience?
Breitbart says Drudge blessed the profitable arrangement and has "zero creative or business interest in the site." Breitbart says he "wanted to create the single best place where I could go as an avid news reader to get headlines the second they hit the Internet so I don't have to go to 40 sites." Beyond that, he says only, "I'm grateful for the traffic that is sent my way."
Breitbart met Drudge in the mid- 1990s. Drudge was e-mailing a gossipy, entertainment-oriented newsletter for free to a growing list of subscribers and posting it in an Internet chat room. He worked on a computer that his father insisted on buying for him at the Circuit City on Sunset Boulevard. Dad was concerned that his son, a self-described "untrained D student," was meandering through life.
At the time, Drudge was holding the latest in a grab bag of odd jobs, presiding over souvenirs as a salesclerk and supervisor in the CBS gift shop in Studio City. But this job — unlike, say, his stint as a 7-Eleven night manager back East — let him get in touch with his inner snoop. He dipped into trash cans at the studio, retrieving confidential TV ratings data, and schmoozed the production staffs of sitcoms. The tidbits he obtained went into his newsletter and, in 1995, onto his newly created website.
Now, not so many years later, CBS is discreetly using its former shop boy to pump the ratings of its premier news program, "60 Minutes."
Aware of Drudge's ability to drive the day's news agenda, the show's marketers e-mail him transcripts of upcoming segments for which they want advance buzz — be it one that includes GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, a Mormon, saying he "can't imagine anything more awful than polygamy" or rapper Cam'ron saying he wouldn't help cops catch a serial killer because it would hurt his business and violate his "code of ethics."
The idea is to get reporters, who might throw away a self-serving network publicity release, to chase the item on the Drudge Report because it has "more of a news aura," explained a CBS executive who spoke anonymously. Some journalists, the executive said, might write the story simply to avoid getting beaten by someone else.
"By promoting on the Drudge Report, we raise the stakes," he said. "Drudge is like a megaphone in the cyber-world. Other news organizations and websites take their cue from him."
CNN Iraq reporter Michael Ware can unhappily relate to that phenomenon.
On April 1, in one of his "exclusives," Drudge accused Ware of heckling presidential candidate Sen. John McCain during a Baghdad news conference. The alleged incident occurred after Ware, a week earlier, had challenged the Arizona Republican's assertion that there were neighborhoods in the Iraqi capital safe enough for a stroll.
Drudge, in his five-paragraph report, quoted an unidentified official as saying that the CNN reporter was mocking McCain and laughing at him. "I've never witnessed such disrespect," the official said.
The liberal group Media Matters for America tracked the echo of Drudge's report through the pro-war blogosphere, where the reporter was variously called "a blatant advocate of defeat," "unfit to cover the war" and "a shill for terrorists."
Ware insisted on the air that he did not heckle, mock or laugh at McCain. He said he did not even ask a question — a position supported by CNN video clips. Still, Drudge did not retract or clarify his single-sourced account. Nor did most of his admiring bloggers, though several did later express skepticism. Said one: "I wonder if Drudge got 'April fooled.' "
Even when accuracy is not an issue, some journalists remain concerned about Drudge's influence.
Mackenzie Warren, who oversees the News-Press website in Fort Myers, Fla., says the Drudge Report gave unwarranted national bounce to a day-old story that the paper determined was barely newsworthy.
The wire-service piece reported on a Florida legislator's efforts to ban the use of the word "alien" by state agencies when describing undocumented immigrants. The Drudge Report brought a burst of readers to news-press.com with a link that said: "Bill Would Mandate Nicer Term for Illegals." The problem, according to Warren, was that the legislation had no chance of becoming law.
"It was an outrage story even though there was nothing to be outraged about," Warren says. Drudge "was able to bend and shape the meaning of the story to meet his needs."
In the past, Warren says, he would plot ways to lobby Drudge, who dislikes self-promotion from link seekers. So Warren pitched stories through a fake e-mail address.
"I'd say, 'Great story down there in Florida.' Then I'd throw in some incendiary adjective, and next thing you know our story would be at the top of his site and our traffic would be on fire."
But Warren says he's no longer secretly seeking Drudge's attention. Among other things, links from Drudge skew readership numbers — up one day, down the next — making it difficult to determine ad rates, Warren and his counterparts in smaller markets say. Their advertisers want local readers, not the national audience Drudge delivers, which is more attractive to bigger news sites.
"You're always flattered when you get linked, but from a business and community standpoint, it doesn't help," says Barry Cooper, online managing editor for Pilot Online in Hampton Roads, Va.
No one, of course, can predict with confidence whether Drudge will thrive as a gatekeeper in the years ahead, as the New York Times' Rich can attest. In a 1999 column, he opined that Drudge would soon become irrelevant.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says Drudge undeniably has come to play an important role in the consumption and distribution of news, especially when the story is big.
In a study of the online medium's election-night performance in November, Rosenstiel says his group found that Drudge quickly sent his audience to the best destinations. "He had figured out in real time what we figured out more conclusively in hindsight," Rosenstiel says.
When the balance of the Senate came down to the race in Virginia, for example, Drudge linked to the secretary of state's office for updated tallies. The resulting flood of visitors crashed the government site.
Still, Rosenstiel says, "Drudge is vulnerable because he's not producing anything. He's just got muscle through his links to the work of others."
One day, he says, news organizations are going to say, "We're not going to give this stuff away to Drudge. We need to get some source of revenue to subsidize the creation of the content."
Although Drudge has spent years taking aim at the mainstream media, Rosenstiel says, the truth is he needs their links for his livelihood.
"The dirty little secret about Drudge," Rosenstiel says, "is that he's a gateway for conventional journalism."