The Drudge Effect

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
13 June, 2017
Editorial: 105
Fecha de publicación original: 3 febrero, 1998

A girl goes down to the river, she doesn’t say anything about herself but tells all about her neighbours

An unexpected, hard slap in the face, has suddenly made the traditional communications media, both paper and audiovisual, wake up to the reality of cyberspace. At least, that is the way we could read the latest event that “has shaken” the Net: the Monica Lewinsky and Drudge Report affair. The story had all the necessary ingredients for becoming yet another “turn of the century landmark” (like so many others of its kind, such as Lady Di‘s death, for example), i.e. a US President, oral and verbal sex, cover-up operations, judicial attacks on the White House, taped conversations, etc. But, above all, it had a fundamental sex appeal: Newsweek and the Washington Post were onto their prey when, lo and behold, it was stolen from right under their noses. And this is the crux of the matter. Right from the start, the “Drudge Report case“, the gossip column that circulated the exclusive on Clinton’s zip problem, was at the same time a victim of its own news: if it had not stolen the news away from these two luminaries – a world-renowned magazine and the emblematic newspaper of the US capital – its epic achievement would have remained buried in a series of routine forums and messages circulating without any significant repercussions on the world outside. A fact which would, nevertheless, not have detracted from the importance of this event one little bit: the Internet carries more and more scoops and exclusive information, it’s just that they don’t usually affect the big mastheads – the public opinion makers. They are scoops which belong to a new communications network, designed by digital media within communities whose modus operandi are not necessarily those of a community where information is determined by uni-directional communications media. In any case, the Drudge Report has meant the vivisection of the nature of the scoop, one of the pillars of the communications industry.

Emilio Fernández – –

Emilio Fernández – –

The traditional media compete against each another on the basis of a series of variables in which scoops –or exclusives, or their own investigative contributions to the information–play a fundamental role, to the point that, even when they are not necessarily such in the strictest sense, it organises hierarchically and structures the information. It also stamps its own special identity on it. Watergate, for example, has gone down in history as the Washington Post‘s story, the newspaper that first uncovered and published Nixon’s dirty tricks. Things have always been this way and it seemed that they would be forever and ever, amen. But then along came the Internet and everything changed. But it didn’t make its first appearance just last week (which was big news to a lot of people).

Over the last two years, I have attended numerous debates on “The Internet as a new means of communication”. I have always been amazed by the reticence of many of my colleagues to see what was happening right before their very eyes. The ability of internauts (individuals, companies, organisations or public administration) to publish in an interactive environment such as the Net has suddenly opened up a new world of electronic publications structured in various simultaneous and interconnected layers, the basic element of which is their own news, many of them real scoops. It is true that not all of what there is on the Internet corresponds to this process, but the tendency to structure information in this way is more than a flash in the pan. There is ample proof of this in numerous BBSs and other types of initiatives. We needn’t go any further for examples than our own VilaWeb, which is just one of a number of systems of this kind populating Catalan cyberspace.

So what was needed for these tendencies to make their début on the world stage? In the first place, in a world bent on myth-making such as our own, a baptism of fire on a global scale –the scale of the Net– to show people the dimensions of this phenomenon. And this is exactly what has happened with what we could call the “Drudge Effect“. In the area of public discussion, the traditional communications media have been faced with an unexpected, but predictable, dilemma: they have had to decide what part of their information has to appear on the Internet as soon as it is ready, and how this will affect the range of information they offer via traditional formats. It is in this process of negotiation that the crux of the matter lies because the new communications landscape designed by the Internet has already completely caught up with them. It will not be an easy task. Basically, they will have to clarify relationships between an established culture and an emerging one, the former holding fast to a particular culture of evaluating a scoop and the second prepared, in a manner of speaking, to dynamite it and consume it at the very moment it is produced. The traditional media have understood, in less than 11 hours, that in the Information Society they cannot run the risk of sitting on an exclusive until the next edition or they will pay the price of wasting what they have invested in human, financial and technical resources in order to obtain it

In the second place, the “Drudge Effect” questions the idea of exclusives belonging to the big media mastheads and consequently their particular way of obtaining and disseminating them as well. This is something that was already known (and has been happening) on the Internet, but the impact of this simultaneous and interconnected, layered structure of the new communications media was not yet recognised. However, when they get down to the business of competing with the big media it is clear that digital information systems, when provided with research teams (or professionals with good connections), who know how to use the resources of the Net to their advantage, could become veritable fountains of news in the most traditional sense of the word. In addition they don’t need to bend to political, or other kinds of pressure, that large communications companies usually have to put up with, a fact clearly illustrated by the debate which led Newsweek not to publish the story of the restless White House assistant.

In the third place, there are no hidden corners on the Internet, as those who look at it from the sidelines of the traditional media believe. The Internet opens up wherever one opens an e-mail, a forum, discussion list, a web or a hyperlink. The power of the news does not lie in some “corner” but in the organisational resources of the Net which are used to disseminate it. These include the internauts themselves, of course, who, depending on the degree of interest the news arouses, act like a loudspeaker system amplifying its impact. To do so they use not only the Net’s own tools, but the telephone or, if they have to, shouting out from one window to window.

Consequently, in the fourth place, and this is fundamental: the media in the Net, both those who simply transfer the content they have prepared for circulation in the real world onto the Net, as well as those who design it (within and) for an interactive environment like cyberspace, will never enjoy a stable audience in the way that this is understood by the newsagent’s logic. The Drudge Report was visited by a miniscule proportion of all those who accessed this piece of news. The success of this gossip columnist did not depend on the number of visits to his web, but on two other factors: a) the speed at which the story about Monica Lewinsky ran from forum to forum, through distribution lists, via e-mail, and was “posted” on thousands of webs (the Washington Post‘s among them), etc., and b) the value which internauts placed on this information. During this process, the news was tagged all the time with a name no-one could get rid of: “Drudge“. How can we measure this audience by present methods? Audience ratings would say that Mr Drudge’s page was visited by, let’s say, 1,000,000 people, but his news was consumed by millions and reinvested into the system because the audience decided that it held a certain value for them (even if it was just to have a good laugh at the expense of Newsweek and the Washington Post). This is a fact of primordial importance: the system itself “felt” the convulsions of the event because internauts decided to use the information and, by so doing, feedback was created and the system was enriched (although some might say they filled it up with junk, but that depends on the criteria you use to look at each particular event). In other words, what took place was the interaction typical of electronic publications, if we understand this as the combination of digital resources specifically used for communication.

The “Drudge Effect” opens up a series of debates which can no longer be put off. One of these poses a question that has been raised over the last few days in the newsrooms of many newspapers and other publications. If scoops, as we have known them up to now, have lost their competitive edge, is this the beginning of the end of this particular communications model? Not necessarily. Over the next few months, we will attend open and public discussions on a matter that has been present in the Internet for some time, namely the question about the scope of the new media, what its basic elements are, and how it should achieve the goals it has set itself. This is a debate which will obviously affect also the traditional media and its capacity for adapting to this new situation. On the other hand, it seems to me only natural that the value of news will be reassessed according to the degree of interest it arouses in a world of interactive electronic publications. This means that there is, at the least, a need to investigate and redefine what we understand by news in the multiple communications contexts we are creating in the Internet, what role exclusives play in them and how they are “rewarded” (real audience rating in cyberspace, an aspect which, amongst other things, is linked to advertising).

Another determining factor is the nature of journalism as a profession within this new panorama. Electronic publications mean working with a set of resources as a basic framework of the information system that is designed. This means that journalists need to develop new skills, becoming familiar with the specific tools needed in each case and learning to manage information flow determined not only by that which the system in question emits but also, to a large extent by the way it interacts with others on the Net. Organising information in this context bears very little similarity to the work presently carried out in newsrooms.

This last factor is, of course, related to persistent complaints about the amount of junk information on the Internet. Junk information abounds not only on the Internet, but all around us. But we have learnt to discern, discriminate, criticise and alter and improve what interests us. This is an activity that will be ever more in demand in an environment populated with electronic publications. It could even become a new kind of business activity (in fact, what is it the traditional media do if not this?). In a world in which the main product will be information, the need for the players (individuals, businesses, organisations, institutions) to hone their critical faculties in order to survive, will increase exponentially. This is nothing new, but it will become more and more essential as the anaesthetising effect of information systems which are accepted uncritically increases, such as already happens, to cite one of our most obvious examples, with the television. It is not difficult to imagine, therefore, that the written media, armed also with the audiovisual resources of the Internet, have an important role to play here because of their sense of professionalism as regards the job of information dissemination. The traditional media has discovered –although perhaps not in the gentlest way — that in the Internet they have a natural ally. If they design– and negotiate– their systems in accordance with this new reality, the Net might affect the social composition of their readership up to a certain point, but what the will have to face is that they cannot relate to their readers in the same way they’ve done up to now. In addition, communications companies –and their journalists–will have to learn to live alongside an ocean of interactive electronic publications, something which up until now has been unusual from their “newsagent’s culture” standpoint.

Translation: Bridget King.