21st century paperboys.

The Washington Post’s largest driver of website traffic is Drudge, according to the paper’s editor.

That’s impressive clout for Matt Drudge, given that many bloggers regard him as a has-been. I suppose he’s not technically a blogger, either. He doesn’t post stories in reverse chronological order, there’s no archive, and if he has an RSS feed I haven’t found it. Drudge is notoriously sensationalistic and unreliable, and his fame seems to have peaked during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In spirit, though, he is a blogger: An eager, hectoring, and occasionally critical reader of mainstream news sources. And in function, he certainly is: He digs out pearls of interest from the massive flow of global news information, and drives readers to them.

The Washington Post’s traffic pattern is not unusual. At Ziff Davis, some of our biggest drivers of traffic are meta-blog sites like Slashdot and Digg. I’m sure the same is true of the other major tech journalism publishers: IDG, cnet, and so forth. A post on Boing Boing is a virtual guarantee of a massive traffic attack. Recognizing this, all journalism websites are increasingly crafting their stories to be bloggable, both technically and in terms of content. Sites are adding “digg this!” buttons and “add to del.icio.us” buttons to facilitate linking and traffic flow. They understand the value of consistent permalinks and readily accessible RSS feeds. And the editors frequently post stories that are designed to appeal to the Digg and Slashdot audiences. That’s not to say that all their content is aimed at this audience (as big as their traffic is, Digg’s readers are still a rather narrow niche of super-techie geeks) but it is important to have frequent hits from this direction, in order to keep the flow of readers to the site.

In fact, in the old bloggers vs. journalists debate, it’s clear that news bloggers have indeed supplanted a major component of the journalism business. It’s just not the component that most bloggers originally thought they were supplanting. With a few exceptions, bloggers are not doing primary-source reporting and breaking new stories.

Instead, bloggers are replacing the news distribution function. Indeed, they’re doing it far better than before, by selecting individual stories, commenting on them, and by creating and facilitating feedback. But most still rely on a central producer of the news, without which they’d have nothing to link to. Conversely, news sites increasingly rely on bloggers to distribute their stories to audiences they want to reach. In other words, bloggers have replaced not reporters, but paperboys.

21st century paperboys.