Siren2  

by Patrick Appel

While writing about aggregation, the Economist gets this wrong:

[A]nother kind of aggregator has emerged, which offers a selection of news and commentary. Some are eclectic, like the Daily Beast and the Drudge Reportthe grandfather of the boutique aggregators. Others are more specific, like Perlentaucher, a German cultural website. The most successful of the lot, and the template for many newly unemployed journalists who have tried to launch websites of their own, is the Huffington Post.

Drudge is more successful the HuffPo when you compare man hours to web traffic. Drudge is also a better template for an internet start up.

Let's compare overhead. Huffington has around 60 paid employees and an army of 3000 unpaid contributors, many of them celebrities and politicians. The website reports original stories, has influential authors, and opines on nearly every major political story. Drudge Report, on the other hand, is staffed by two, so far as I know, and usually simply links to stories using a provocative headline. Clicking on Drudge's page for the first time one is blown away by the simplicity of his operation. A gaudy website, hand-coded, that looks exactly the same as it did ten years ago. How and why did this become a major news portal?

On the internet, news is a nearly perfect market. Webpages can fall and rise in popularity in the same way stocks do. External events, like the election or the downfall of the economy, change the value of given information. Just look at our traffic in October of last year. Or consider the rise of blogger Salam Pax during the invasion of Iraq and the sudden prominence of Alisara Chirapongse, a college student in Bangkok who started blogging politically during the coup. Drudge, for his part, capitalized early on a community of conservative news consumers who were unhappy with newspaper content because of a perceived leftward skew. This tilt left is not some Vast Liberal Media Conspiracy. Instead, consider voting patterns and the economics of the newspaper business.

Major newspapers needed large densely populated urban areas to serve as subscriber bases. Papers often lose money off the purchase price and depend upon print ads to subsidize their printing, delivery, and reporting costs. Doing that profitably requires delivering lots of eyeballs to advertisements. Urban areas provide many more potential subscribers and the density of the population cuts down on delivery costs because drivers and paper boys don't have to travel as far between stops.

Newspapers concentration in major metro areas coincided with a demographic trend: cities tend to be more liberal than rural areas. Just look at the results of the last presidential election broken down by county and margin of victory. Since newspapers need to appeal to their audience in order to be profitable, the news, as a whole, skews slightly to the left. This is reflected in the composition of the press core. From PEW's 2008 study on the press (pdf):

As was the case in 2004, majorities of the national and local journalists surveyed describe themselves as political moderates; 53% of national journalists and 58% of local journalists say they are moderates. About a third of national journalists (32%), and 23% of local journalists, describe themselves as liberals. Relatively small minorities of national and local journalists call themselves conservatives (8% national, 14% local).

This is not to say that reporters –even liberal ones– won't write beat sweeteners, ie trade positive coverage for access. But it's not coincidence that more journalists are liberal than conservative; it's the market at work (this trend may also have to do with educated voters, journalists among them, becoming more liberal).

Besides The Wall Street Journal, which is really more of a financial paper than a conservative paper, there are few major right-leaning printed papers, because launching one doesn't make economic sense. Smaller conservative papers certainly exist, and can be found in rural areas and a few medium-sized cities, but these papers' revenues are usually tiny because they have tiny subscriber bases. This makes their newsrooms smaller and their reporting less extravagant. Their readers get a product of relatively lesser value than urban newspaper readers.

The internet changed these economic realities. Geographic location was no longer economically relevant for news delivery. Delivering papers in an area where residents live ten miles apart doesn't make economic sense. The gas costs more than the subscription is worth. But Drudge could serve readers from rural America at no extra cost and he could collect conservative stories from all around the globe, in effect creating a major conservative national newspaper for the first time. Once he became the central node of the conservative web, through scoops and OCD updating of his webpage, inertia took over and it became very difficult to dethrone him.

(Image by Fickr user Illetirres)

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.