The Pew Research Center‘s Project for Excellence in Journalism has released a study showing that while news sites depend a great deal on Google’s twin engines of search and news, which drives approximately 30% of these sites’ traffic, there’s another major source at work. Facebook and Twitter drive some traffic. But the surprising source of referrals comes from a single site — the Drudge Report, a 14-year-old site founded by Matt Drudge and most notorious for its coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
The Drudge Report alone drives about 7% of traffic to news sites. Facebook follows, providing about 3.3%, with Twitter next driving about 1%. (The bulk of traffic — about 40% — comes from direct URL access, typing in a domain name or using a bookmark.)
While it’s arguable whether Google’s news and search algorithms rise to the level of curation, it’s notable that the Drudge Report, which is curated by real people, has such an effect on traffic. As David Carr of the New York Times writes:
A big part of the reason he is such an effective aggregator for both audiences and news sites is that he actually acts like one. Behemoth aggregators like Yahoo News and The Huffington Post have become more like fun houses that are easy to get into and tough to get out of. Most of the time, the summary of an article is all people want, and surfers don’t bother to click on the link. But on The Drudge Report, there is just a delicious but bare-bones headline, there for the clicking. It’s the opposite of sticky, which means his links actually kick up significant traffic for other sites.
It’s an interesting set of observations, with many points of relevance for scholarly publishers:
- Drudge rewrites headlines, making them more interesting and relevant
- Drudge selects and gangs stories, curating a flood of news into a set of related perspectives on the day’s events
- Drudge doesn’t editorialize beyond the headline rewrite — it just sends you on your way
- Drudge has become a central hub for news junkies, so it’s a place to start for the current smart set
Imagine a similar service for scientists — juicier, clearer headlines; a smartly selected list of the most interesting content; no time-wasting elaboration; and a virtuous cycle of serendipity and connection. Such a nice little service targeted at the right specialty or field could become a central zone of interest for researchers and practitioners. There’s a lot to learn from the Drudge approach.
Curation succeeds because despite the power of the network effect and connectivity, finding stuff is still a pain, and discovering things is still a joy. Ethan Zuckerman has captured a fascinating keynote about the emergence of cities, the search for connectedness and serendipity, and the “two steps backward” online experience:
Like everyone else, I’m experiencing a shift in how I get news about the world. In the pre-web world and early web days, news of the world came primarily through curated media – broadcast television, newspapers, magazines. There were – and are – reasons to distrust curators, but there’s a critical aspect of their work I believe we need to preserve as we move towards new models for organizing news. Curators implicitly tell us what they believe we need to know about the world. High quality curators often have a broader view of the world than individuals have, and well-curated media often demands we pay attention to people, places and issues we might have otherwise ignored. On the other hand, curators invariably have biases, and the ability to seek information that appeals to our own interests and preferences is one of the most powerful capacities the modern web has put in our hands. . . . We need mechanisms to ensure that search gets complemented with serendipity.
Journals are one form of curation we’re familiar with, but it’s a clumsy form — articles appear roughly in the order submitted, editors are loathe to obviously favor one article over another, and titles are usually not as pointed or appealing as they might be. Clearly, there is room for another approach. But could an academic curator get out of his or her own way as efficiently as Drudge does? Or would desire for wordiness, ego-assertion, and academic prominence somehow pollute the effort?
Curation is a powerful tool that feeds our innate desire for serendipity and complex knowledge. While algorithmic aggregations achieved by search engines, spiders, and the like can take us some distance toward that desired destination, the Drudge Report’s success suggests that human editorial judgment and touch can still lead us farther, faster — if it’s not burdened with unhelpful excesses.