From his ninth-floor, one-bedroom Hollywood apartment, Matt Drudge can look out a window and see the Capitol Records building, CNN's local headquarters and E! Entertainment's high-rise.
Each of these major news and entertainment enterprises has invested heavily in cutting themselves a piece of the Internet pie. But from his spartan haven, and with virtually no overhead or assistance, Drudge has single-handedly established himself as a spirited Internet voice who has risen high above the institutional drone.
His e-mail newsletter, the Drudge Report, is mandatory reading for the muckiest mucks in New York, Washington and Hollywood, dishing the juiciest gossip from the halls of studios, networks, record companies, political chambers and, yes, "traditional" media outlets.
How did a 30-year-old former gift shop employee, with no journalistic background and no money, create one of the hottest properties on the Internet?
Drudge, a D student who ranked 325th out of 350 in his suburban Maryland high school, never went to college. But, he says, "I've always been a media pig. As a kid, I read op-ed pieces."
Arriving in Los Angeles in the mid-'80s, he found himself employed in the CBS gift shop. His life changed when his father, a social worker, bought him a $1,500 Packard Bell PC in the fall of 1994.
"I'd pull all-nighters reading the [Associated Press] on Prodigy," he recalls. He also discovered usenet groups and began posting Hollywood gossip on alt.showbiz.gossip and rec.arts.tv. He would literally dig through CBS' trash bins to get his hands on ratings and other juicy tidbits ahead of (or instead of) the media pack.
In March 1995, Drudge quit his $30,000-a-year CBS job, and the first Drudge Report was e-mailed to the newsgroup following he had developed. It set the tone for future offerings, with a prophetic Hollywood item (Jerry Seinfeld demanding $1 million per episode), a tart political squib (regarding Pat Buchanan) and a flash report on a natural phenomenon (a Virginia earthquake).
For the first nine months, Drudge filed his report every Sunday night, and by the spring of '96, his e-mail list had grown to 1,000. Today, two years and 1,000 missives later, the Drudge Report is "filed when circumstances warrant," appearing in 40,000 e-mail boxes around the world--and that doesn't count the "pass-along rate" of those who forward items of interest to their friends and colleagues.
Is it news? Gossip? Entertainment? Though he has broken major national stories and developed a solid reputation for reliability, each report carries the caveat "for recreational purposes only."
His operation is interactive in the truest sense: The 750 daily e-mails he receives (email@example.com) will contain up to 100 new subscriptions and a dozen legitimate tips, but for the most part it is fan feedback. His e-mail intake doubled the day Rush Limbaugh quoted the newsletter on the air, referring to Drudge as "the Rush Limbaugh of the Internet."
Drudge was not pleased: He valiantly strives to mask his Republican leanings, and he prefers to think of Limbaugh as "the Drudge of radio."
Thanks to his network of high-powered readers, Drudge repeatedly scoops major media institutions. He was weeks ahead of the pack with the news that Jack Kemp would be Bob Dole's running mate. He was the first to correctly predict Connie Chung's departure from CBS and the first to announce the MSNBC joint news venture of Microsoft and NBC.
And when Drudge's neighbor CNN picked up his report that "Titanic" was to be the most expensive movie ever--"30% above 'Waterworld' "--it attributed its report only to "Hollywood sources."
"It's not just about who tells the story first," says Drudge. "It's who spins it first, gives it instant analysis. And stories have a short shelf life. They're hot for 36 hours."
Drudge's workday begins in the early evening, as he peruses the online contents of tomorrow's London Times and London Telegraph. He'll blast through 30 online newspapers and dozens of online syndicated columns and wire services before the night is through.
He views the world's events not up close but on two side-by-side PC monitors, three televisions and a police scanner--all the while taking notes on a laptop.
When he encounters an especially tasty item, or delights himself at his own well-turned phrases, Drudge will leap out of his seat and boyishly kangaroo-hop around his small room.
Other than his tools of the trade, his environment is defiantly low-tech. "I'm anti-computer," he declares.
Nor, for someone mired in entertainment news, does Drudge partake in audience pleasures. Unlike many reporters who cover his beat, "I don't take [free] CDs, I don't go to screenings, I'm not out shaking hands. I never watch TV for fun. I'm not a consumer of that stuff. I don't want to know if Dan Aykroyd is starring in a new pilot. It's a waste of time."
Drudge has no journalistic training. "That's what saves me," he says. But then, his brand of journalism does not involve exclusive interviews or investigative technique or even firsthand observation.
Rather, Drudge's accomplishment is threefold. First, he scoops the mainstream media on its own stories, by intercepting its early online editions. Second, he imparts his own entertaining spin on the news--playing the interlaced roles of outraged moralist and court jester. And he takes full advantage of the Internet to procure and disseminate his information and viewpoint.
He has no editors to approve or spike his stories, no prescribed space to fill, no deadlines to meet, no advertisers to appease.
'What he's doing can't be done in any other medium," says Wired News Managing Editor Kevin Kelleher, who syndicates the Drudge Report as "gossip." Citing Drudge's quirky "analysis" of "hypertimely content," Kelleher says that "he's his own brand of geek. The Japanese have a word for him--otaku--which means 'an obsessed specialist.' "
"He's disrupted the L.A./New York/D.C. elitist axis that determines who can write and distribute news," says his friend Andrew Breitbart, a producer at E! Online.
How does Drudge make a living out of this? At an optional $10 per subscriber, he now takes in $20,000 a year from his readers, which he expects will double next year, plus an additional undisclosed five-figure sum for his Wired syndication deal. Though his Website gets 8,000 readers a day ("more than most small newspapers in America"), it doesn't generate income.
His ambition? "I'm just trying to stay afloat in a sea of information. I'm trying to make it fun, give it attitude and be human about it. I don't know where it's going. I have no goals. If it all fell through tomorrow, I'd go to work at the newsstand on Las Palmas."
That's where he can be found every Friday at 8:30 a.m., picking up the "airline" edition of the tabloids. "Actually, I'd like to move to Hawaii." No, not for the surf and sand, or natural phenomena, he admits, but "for the extra two-hour lead time."
Jerry Lazar publishes the arts and entertainment Webzine the Gigaplex (www.gigaplex.com). E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org