The Sun has been targeting important parts of its news agenda to court the attention of right-wing aggregator the Drudge Report, with some staff concerned that it is beginning to change the way the British outlet presents stories on Drudge’s favourite UK targets, such as London mayor Sadiq Khan.
According to emails seen by BuzzFeed News and interviews with Sun staff, the Sun’s website editors have become increasingly insistent on creating what they have internally referred to as “Drudge-bait” in an effort to secure huge amounts of traffic from the aggregator.
One memo written by a top online editor lays out how the Sun’s reporters can help increase the website’s “Drudge clout” heading into the 2020 US election cycle. Emails from a manager tasked with reporting on the Sun’s traffic also blamed a lack of “Drudge hits” as the reason the website missed targets early last year.
Sources have said there’s also been an invisible “skewing effect”, meaning they’re now doing more partisan political headlines and stories to cater to the whims of Drudge.
“Stories are now being done entirely because they might get Drudged,” one Sun source said. “It’s fine for the batshit stories about the moon or something like Vladimir Putin’s robot army. It gets a lot dodgier when politics are involved.
“It works as like an invisible hand on the editorial direction. Drudge can shift the entire website purely because of the amount of traffic he brings in.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson acknowledged the Sun flagged stories with the Drudge Report, but claimed the US aggregator was responsible for a “tiny part” of traffic and said it was “simply not credible” that stories were being slanted.
Rupert Murdoch’s red-top tabloid certainly isn’t the first digital news operation to try to come up with ways to get stories on the Drudge Report — one of the most dominant conservative news websites on the internet. If anything, the Sun’s obsession with and reliance on Drudge as a growth strategy appears to be a throwback to an earlier era of online news.
Matt Drudge started the Drudge Report — which still features a single story in a splash, with three columns of links — in the 1990s, gaining notoriety for breaking the story about Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.
In the two decades since, Drudge has kept the website unchanged in basic form, with a rotating list of links and pictures throughout the day. But while Drudge’s influence has waned somewhat in recent years, the site can still operate like a massive traffic hose, pumping tens or even hundreds of thousands of readers to the outlets whose links get featured. It’s meant news websites have continued to court the huge surge in traffic that can come with a link on Drudge.
One analysis last year put Drudge sixth in a ranking of US media publications for traffic and engagement. The amount of traffic a single Drudge link can bring to a story has even become almost a joke to reporters at big, non-paywalled news websites.
But emails seen by BuzzFeed News show that for the right-wing Sun — which recently claimed victory over the Mail Online as the top online “brand” in the UK — Drudge has become a key part of whether the website hits its targets.
“SEO is down almost 2% and on global numbers we’re missing some decent Drudge hits,” read a report last year from the head of audience development for News UK, the Sun’s parent company.
A month later a similar report read: “We’ve had a much stronger start to this month than last month. Partially this is due to the marketing approach on Social but a lot to do with the news agenda which we’ve been doing well on. It hasn’t just been the snow stories either. Some good Drudge hits mean that our global numbers are looking healthy.” Two sources estimated that on average a Drudge Report link would drive up to 200,000 views to the Sun’s website.
Last week, a Sun editor wrote a strategy memo for reporters for the year ahead, opening with comments on the importance of improving the website’s “Drudge clout” by increasing US political coverage.
“We need to ever so slightly increase the number of US politics stories we do to start building proper SEO & Drudge clout ahead of next year's election,” read the memo.
It asked reporters to trawl an array of US political websites, while also suggesting they listen to podcasts like Pod Save America, the New York Times’ The Daily, and The Ben Shapiro Show.
The Sun’s reporters and editors are now also required to fill out an Excel spreadsheet at the completion of each story for the website. Sources said the document includes a column for the rationale behind each story and instructions for the curation team. Some examples include the entries “SEO” or “Facebook”. More frequently entries feature the word “Drudge”.
Some at the Sun have expressed unease about the overreliance on Drudge, especially how it impacts editorial decisions. Staff are well aware that Drudge has been particularly interested in London mayor Sadiq Khan.
“The Sun online is really aggressive towards Sadiq Khan in large part because Drudge often takes the stories about London’s Muslim mayor,” one Sun source said.
When Khan was elected in 2016, the story was splashed at the top of Drudge’s website with the caption: “DEVELOPING: FIRST MUSLIM MAYOR OF LONDONISTAN”. Since then, the Drudge Report has repeatedly mocked Khan dozens of times and referred back to “Londonistan” — a term used in far-right circles of the internet.
In June, Drudge shared the Sun’s story of Khan being heckled with the caption: “LONDONISTAN: Khan called ‘jihadist’ by Tommy Robinson supporters.”
Editors also noticed Drudge was featuring stories about Tommy Robinson after the former English Defence League leader was jailed for contempt by a Leeds court. Sources said Robinson stories subsequently went up at the Sun in the second half of last year, with Drudge sharing several of them.
In November last year, the Sun published a story about Robinson's Australian tour with the US far-right group the Proud Boys. Drudge later shared the Sun’s story with the caption: “‘Proud Boys’ to tour with Tommy Robinson…”
“Sun readers might wonder why they’re getting these crazy, political stories about people they’ve never heard of,” said one Sun reporter. “It’s because of Drudge.”
And there are other particular Drudge favourites in the UK. Staff said stories about Jewish billionaire George Soros and Brexit have had their headlines beefed up in an effort to get on the Drudge Report.
“Drudge will take stories from the BBC or the [left-wing] Independent on Sadiq or Tommy and put them on the front page. As long as its breaking news,” said one Sun insider.
“So we’ve got to be quick and grab his attention, which means playing his game with strong language in headlines.”
The British website is also acutely aware of the global stories that Drudge seeks away from UK politics. In February last year, one senior Sun editor emailed reporters with a link to a Reuters report that cited the news agency’s sources saying that hundreds of “Putin mercenaries” had been killed in Syria in a week.
The Sun news editor wrote to staff: “This is really good. Proper Drudge bait. Seems to confirm that US and Russian forces fought directly, although no one will admit it. And Russians came off far worse with up to 300 dead.”
And there are numerous instances in the emails where editors explicitly state why they’re attracted to certain stories. In another email a few months later, the Sun’s video desk sent a list of links to a story about a new supersonic missile being used by the Israeli Air Force, with the subject line “Drudge potential?”
“Drudge seems to like big military drills in China, or something to do with the moon, or something that’s got a Cold War bent,” said the Sun source. “We’ll write it up just to get on Drudge and get the traffic boost.”
“Oh and fucking sex robots. He fucking loves sex robots.”
Editors and reporters are also instructed to send what they consider the “Drudge bait” stories to Drudge’s two public email addresses — a common practice among many news websites to get on the site. To optimise their chances on getting on the front page, Sun editors send them at 2:30pm London time.
According to someone with knowledge of the Sun’s year-end numbers, the British news outlet received “tens of millions” of referrals from Drudge in 2018. One source put the figure at more than 45 million, adding “that’s a hefty yearly slice of the non-football, non-celebrity traffic at the Sun”.
“It’s just short-termism though,” said a source. “How can you grow a British news website, or build out the Sun’s brand at the whims of this American aggregator?”
In a statement, a Sun spokesperson told BuzzFeed News: “We do flag stories with Drudge when we think they'll be of interest in the same way we do so for Apple News and Flipboard, but we’d never do a story for any other reason than because it’s interesting to our readership.
“For the record, traffic numbers from Drudge pale in comparison next to our own direct traffic, our search traffic via Google or our social traffic via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat etc.
“It’s simply not credible that we’re slanting stories one way or the other for what is a tiny part of our traffic. It’s no secret that nearly all respectable publishers do much the same — traffic is vital to investing in original journalism.”
Mark Di Stefano is a media and politics correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Mark Di Stefano at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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