The Drudge Report, with its Web 1.0 design offering a single page of links, is one of the enduring internet media business success stories. Two decades after rising to prominence for breaking news of the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky affair, it remains one of the most popular websites in the United States and a key source of right-wing ideas for its readers, including President Donald Trump.
Owner Matt Drudge is also still adept at attracting attention, such as last week when his was the only major news site to post the El Paso, Texas, Walmart shooter’s manifesto. But the site has always resisted the temptation to build anything beyond the simplest business of selling display advertising on a single homepage.
Now, Drudge has quietly flipped the switch on perhaps the biggest change he’s ever made: He’s ditched his longtime advertising partner for a new representative, in the process revealing new details about his business and attracting scrutiny of how his site operates.
The reclusive publisher does not disclose revenue figures, but estimates put the site’s annual haul well into the realm of millions of dollars per year. Pathmatics, a marketing intelligence platform, estimates that over the past 12 months the site generated more than $30 million in ad revenue. Another estimate from the Global Disinformation Index, to be published in a report next month, pegs revenue at $9 million per year.
In a surprising turn, Drudge Report removed ads between the end of May and mid-July, according to Danny Rogers, a cofounder of the Global Disinformation Index, a project that’s analyzing domains to generate “risk ratings of the world’s media sites.” After noticing an absence of ads on Drudge around May 31, “we didn’t see any ads on Drudge until about July 12,” Rogers told BuzzFeed News.
During that period, Drudge cast off his advertising representative of close to 20 years, Intermarkets, in favor of a new and unknown company, Granite Cubed. It has no record in the digital ad industry, was only registered as a company in March of this year, and lists no staff or owners on its websites. Yet it just landed one of the biggest websites in the US.
“Any time a 20-year relationship comes to an end is certainly a surprising turn of events,” said Jay Friedman, president of Goodway Group, a digital agency that specializes in programmatic media buying.
Corporate records show that Granite Cubed is owned by Margaret Otto. She and her husband, Adrian, have a business association with the Drudge family that goes back years. The couple acquired Refdesk, a reference website founded by Bob Drudge, Matt’s father, in 2017. They also operated a company that began hosting the Drudge Report in 1999 and later added Breitbart as a customer. (The couple did not answer questions about whether they still own that hosting company or if it’s still hosting Drudge or Breitbart.)
Adrian Otto is the technical director of Google Cloud. He told BuzzFeed News he is not involved with Granite Cubed. Upon joining Google in 2017 from Rackspace, he said, he “stopped operating [his] other business interests” and is no longer involved with “hosting duties” for other websites. Otto was previously listed as the technical contact in the domain registration of breitbart.com, and was thanked by name in the foreword to Andrew Breitbart’s book about Hollywood.
“I knew Andrew Breitbart when he was alive, and helped him with some technical work,” Otto said.
Margaret Otto declined to discuss her company’s plans for Drudge Report or Refdesk, which she said is also represented by Granite. She wouldn’t say if she represents other websites or answer other questions, such as whether Matt or Bob Drudge were shareholders in Granite.
“We respect our customer’s privacy, and therefore, cannot comment on the other questions,” she said in an email.
Friedman said the connections between the Ottos and Drudges raise a question of whether the move to Granite Cubed is “a relationship play [or] a revenue maximization play,” given that today’s representation firms need to be “incredibly technically savvy and have a really good grasp on how to [succeed] in an automated ad market.”
Drudge was characteristically silent when emailed by BuzzFeed News for comment about his new advertising partner and the strategy for his site. His old partners were also hesitant to speak, reinforcing how one of the web’s most influential websites remains in many ways a one-man black box.
“Intermarkets no longer represents DrudgeReport.com, and it is our policy to not discuss former clients with the media,” said Kevin Lucido, the CEO of Intermarkets, which represents other conservative publishers, such as the Media Research Center and the Political Insider.
For his part, Bob Drudge said in an email, “I am retired and have no comment.”
It all makes for a startling shift for a publisher best known for a strategy rooted in changing nothing about his site’s operation. It’s also causing the ad industry to look closely at the mysterious new firm and its high-profile customer.
Friedman said Granite Cubed’s lack of a track record and profile in the industry will be a challenge if it tries to sell ad space directly to brands and agencies. “Certainly if you decide to go to big brands and sell directly, the Granite Cubed thing is going to be challenging. [Brands] get 100 requests a week for meetings and this probably isn’t going to float to the top,” even if they’re representing Drudge, he said.
Others in the industry say they had concerns about Drudge long before the switch to Granite. A manager at another ad tech company told BuzzFeed News he blocked the Drudge Report from its systems in 2017 due to “unacceptable auto-refreshing practices.”
After being loaded in a web browser, Drudge’s site automatically reloads itself after two minutes. The manager said the frequent refresh rate for Drudge Report raised concerns about the number of ads being loaded that were actually able to be viewed by users.
“The page was refreshing approximately every 120 seconds, with no consideration given to user activity. The user could have it open in a background tab and it would accrue [ad] impressions all day long,” said the manager, who requested anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak to the media about specific websites.
The manager said they also removed refdesk.com from the platform due to similar concerns.
Drudge, Granite, and Intermarkets declined to comment on the refresh rate or the comments from the ad tech company manager.
In an interview with Ad Age last year, Erik Requidan, an Intermarkets executive who helped oversee Drudge’s monetization efforts, spoke about how the site’s seemingly low-tech design belied a more “sophisticated” ad operation.
“What seems like a pretty simple thing on the surface is actually quite sophisticated and effective,” he said.