A flock of (relatively) new conservative media sites have gained attention in the mainstream-ish media over the past few weeks, a function of their increased role in driving political attention and, in some cases, their savvy in redirecting Facebook's traffic hose toward themselves. Bloomberg's Dave Weigel notes a series of scoops from the Washington Free Beacon (largely focused on Hillary Clinton); at Slate, Betsy Woodruff explains Twitchy. At the Awl, John Herrman noted the rise of the Independent Journal Review, which "landed big" on Facebook.
For all of this success, for all of the novelty of new sites with sharp designs and well-considered social strategies, publishers will note that there's something to be said for another genre of political news site: the old-school, poorly designed link blog.
The obvious example here is Drudge. Matt Drudge's Drudge Report isn't the elephant in the room, it's the Sun in the old-school linkblog solar system. The Drudge Report has been a massive traffic driver for years, and continues to be. And it looks like it was written by hand in 1996, which, perhaps, it was. Let's apply a new-web technique to make the point. The Drudge Report, as seen in 2001 and 2014.
More pictures, otherwise the same.
How big is Drudge for political sites? Over the course of the year, links from Google to the Post's politics coverage have accounted for 5.5 percent of all incoming links. Drudge accounted for 4.1 percent.
But it isn't only Drudge. Lucianne Goldberg has run Lucianne.com since 1998, she told the Post in an email this week. Over the course of the year, 0.1 percent of incoming links to Post political coverage has been from Lucianne. That doesn't sound like much, until you consider that it is one out of every thousand clicks. For every 55 links from Google, Lucianne Goldberg sends the Post one. (You may be familiar with Goldberg's son Jonah, who writes for the National Review Online, or remember her role in the Lewinsky scandal.) Lucianne has sent five times as much traffic to the Post's politics coverage as the conservative Daily Caller site and more than 50 times more than the Free Beacon. Different types of sites -- Lucianne drives people to reported stories at sites like Caller and Beacon -- but still suggesting a remarkable influence.
There are a number of sites -- both right and left -- that, like Lucianne.com or Drudge, use a simple, old-school format for their updates. There's Ace of Spades HQ and American Thinker for conservatives; Eschaton and Hullabaloo on the left. Their politics differ strongly, but their aesthetics don't: Early 2000s chic.
Duncan Black of Eschaton explained why he stuck with the old style of look. "I like the basic old school blog format," he said in an email, "and don't like the increasingly redesigned-for-tablets internet style." Besides, his readers don't come to the site to assess design innovations. "They care about functionality, speed of loading, and a working comments section," he said. "It needs to be readable, but not beautiful." The result? One colleague at another publication noted to me this week that Eschaton was "driving mad traffic" to one of their posts. It hasn't driven much to the Post this year, but it can make a dent.
Part of the reason for the traffic, certainly, is how long Eschaton and Lucianne have been around. (Black told us that he's had his site for 12-and-a-half years.) Again, not a surprise: old site, old look. American Thinker has been around for about a decade, editor Thomas Lifson told us, which is why the logo now sports Uncle Sam considering a birthday cake. Thinker "[has] not done a fundamental redesign of the home page for roughly 7 years," Lifson said. But last month, he told us, nearly 1.5 million unique visitors stopped by. These are audiences who have often been reading for years, and, if anything, find the designs familiar and comforting.
"Often times, if a site or blog develops a following and they have a real audience, the publisher is not likely to change things," Sarah Sampsel, the Post's director of digital strategy told us. "It's the old 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' philosophy." It's also likely that most of these sites never figured they'd be around for a decade. "In most of these cases, I can see the author knowing a guy whose kid knew a few lines of HTML and they put it together for $100," Sampsel said. "They probably all started small and never looked back." And changes can interrupt a site's usability. Complaints, in Sampsel's experience, are "usually because the design change moved or modified something a specific user always used."
We did ask their proprietors if the old-school sites had ever tried to modernize. "Every time we have made changes in the past," Lifson said, "we have gotten complaints and compliments," suggesting that users notice such things. But Goldberg's response to that question offers perhaps the best possible coda.
"We tried to change but readers whined," she told us. "We are conservatives after all."