Drudge and I had just met on a corner at Hollywood and Vine, where California's media, showbiz and computer industries overlap, and my question for him was how long can he keep this up? Self-publishing, by e-mail and on the Web, a news bulletin that combines Hollywood gossip with Washington leaks, written in his own inimitable style (his open letter to Babe the celluloid pig is notable).
Drudge is what the Internet revolution was all about. Given the technology of free, instant and infinitely cc-able mail, every person could became a home-based news wire, cutting, pasting and rewriting their way to prominence quicker than any scissors-and-Xerox fanzine editor. So why is Matt Drudge the only one being fed leaks by both American political parties and being pursued by old media dinosaurs?
The cheerful 29-year-old, looking out of place on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Pierced Parts and Bedrolls in his striped shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, testifies to the simplicity of his operation. "I use a beat-up Packard Bell 486 desktop running Windows 3.1, with a 28.8 modem. And Netscape [Navigator] 1.1. I keep going back to earlier versions because they're easier to use." He also maintains a Drudge Report Web site, [http://www.lainet
.com/drudge] but prefers the text-only version that plops into 5,000 e-mail boxes (some of which then repost it for wider circulation) every other day or "when circumstances warrant".
The secret to snowballing prominence on-line clearly depends on making a few quantum leaps with the help of the old media. "Here I am, I write this thing out in my boxer shorts with my cat, as if I'm passing notes in high school, and the next thing I'm getting mentioned on Rush Limbaugh's radio show - that's 20 million listeners - and the New York Times are giving out my address too."
The son of a social worker and a lawyer, Drudge, from Washington DC, barely graduated from high school. He went to LA and got a job in the gift shop at CBS Television. He stuck at it for seven years, becoming manager of the $1m-a-year operation, and saved up enough money and contacts to be able to quit. Towards the end he realised there was a surplus of good gossip that never made it into print, and began leaking stories, usually about non-CBS business, from the wired computer that came with the job.
He left CBS and became the boxer shorts pointcaster in February 1995. In September 1995 he tried to charge $10 per annum per address, received 600 subscriptions, but decided against cutting off the freeloaders. After all, on the Internet, connectivity is power. "I'm not about the money, I'm more about the story and the angles and causing trouble."
We stop to browse the international newsstand on the corner. "My newspaper bill is only $2 a day. Everything else is free - I read 17 newspapers electronically every day. I stay up till 1am reading the next day's issues," he chirps. "The New York Post is the only one I want that isn't available online." Persistence seems to be his greatest asset. "There have been other newsletters that haven't made it. But they just don't keep it up. There's nothing worse than stale hip media news."
Information may or may not want to be free, but readers, he has found, don't mind being unpaid sources. Thanks to the inherent interactivity of the medium, Drudge Report recipients are much more likely to hit the reply button and send in a tip or a comment than, say, a radio listener is to call in or a reader to write a letter to the editor. He gets on average 300 e-mails a day, (1,000 is the record) but time pressure dictates that he cannot read them all.
As his sources have deepened, he has had some good scoops. "The Timothy Leary online suicide proposal, that came to me from either the man or someone very close to him, as if they said, 'Here, this kid's doing good stuff, let's toss him a bone'.
"And the story about Newt Gingrich being annoyed about being seated in the back of Air Force One after Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, that came from an e-mail from someone on Capitol Hill. Unidentified of course." It's not all .gov and .house though. The reply that Drudge is most proud of came from Marlon Brando. "I wrote about his movie Don Juan De Marco. I got an e-mail from him - and the address checked out, by the way - telling me to watch the weight jokes."