March 5, 2021

The Media Equation: Roger Ebert’s Legacy as a Relentless Empire-Builder

As if that were a new thing.

Since Roger Ebert’s death on Thursday, many wonderful things have been said about his writing gifts at The Chicago Sun-Times, critical skills that led to a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the first given for movie criticism. We can stipulate all of that, but let’s also remember that a big part of what he left behind was a remarkable template for how a lone journalist can become something much more.

Mr. Ebert was, in retrospect, a very modern figure. Long before the media world became cluttered with search optimization consultants, social media experts and brand-management gurus, Mr. Ebert used all available technologies and platforms to advance both his love of film and his own professional interests.

He clearly loved newspapers, but he wasn’t a weepy nostalgist either. He was an early adopter on the Web, with a CompuServe account he was very proud of, and unlike so many of his ink-splattered brethren, he grabbed new gadgets with both hands.

But it wasn’t just a grasp of technology that made him a figure worthy of consideration and emulation.

Though he was viewed as a movie critic with the soul of a poet, he also had killer business instincts. A journalist since the 1960s, he not only survived endless tumult in the craft, he thrived by embracing new opportunity and expanding his franchise at every turn.

Just as Jay-Z is more than a musician, Roger Ebert was much more than a guy who wrote about movies. He was a newspaper writer, a television personality, a public speaker, a book author, an event impresario and a Web publisher. And through his Web site,, he is still with us even though he is gone, demonstrating the kind of stickiness and durability that media brands crave.

Mr. Ebert’s credentials demonstrate that everything new under the sun started somewhere. He began working as a film critic at The Sun-Times in 1967. He was prolific and memorable, in part because he perfected the high-low split — the thinking man’s regular guy — while much of the rest of the growing world of movie criticism was huffing its own fumes. Mr. Ebert saw the power of syndication early on, negotiating rights to his written work and appearing in 200 newspapers and then repurposing the reviews for best-selling film guides.

In 1975, he formed a long-running television partnership with Gene Siskel, his rival at The Chicago Tribune, coming up with an on-air vaudeville act arguing about movies for a local public television station. The pair proceeded to turn their teeny little show into a national juggernaut.

In making the leap to television, they demonstrated that two rather unremarkable-looking newspaper hacks could make for good content, in part because they spoke their minds and crossed swords frequently. And their binary aesthetic — thumbs up, thumbs down — not only snatched back criticism from the rarefied confines of elite critics, it democratized the practice, neatly predicting an era of Facebook “likes” right down to the use of the thumb. (No dummies when it came to the business end, they trademarked the phrase “two thumbs up,” declaring legal dominion over the concept they helped popularize.)

In 1982 they left public television and cut a deal with The Tribune Company, which was getting into the TV syndication business, that not only paid them well but cut them in on 25 percent of the profits. Mr. Ebert once jotted down some of that math on a napkin to show a local television personality in Chicago how syndication could make her very well known, and perhaps, wealthy. Oprah Winfrey took that advice to the bank.

Together, Siskel and Ebert became the most famous and well compensated film writers in history by using television to spread the word. Carson, Letterman, they were all happy to have Mr. Ebert and Mr. Siskel stop by to brandish their thumbs on the late-night couch.

They continued to roll, signing on with Disney in 1986 and changing the name of their show — which had been “Sneak Previews” and then “At the Movies” — to “Siskel and Ebert and the Movies.” A year later it was shortened again to just “Siskel and Ebert,” because everyone know what their names meant by then.

Mr. Siskel was the more business-minded of the pair, and Mr. Ebert wisely allowed his frenemy and their agent to cut the deals for their show. But Mr. Ebert was hardly a dummy when it came to business, and in some respects he was a visionary.

He used technology to reiterate and reinvent time and again. When illness wiped out his voice, he took to the Web, developing a manic and persistent presence on, and when it became clear that no surgical remedy could restore his voice, he used a synthesizer to continue his life as an impresario and showman. At a time when media companies are scratching their heads about how to successfully stage special events, he was 15 years deep into Ebertfest, his personally curated movie festival in Champaign, Ill.

His footprint extended beyond the come-and-go world of print and television. He wrote two dozen books, including one about computer viruses and another about meals that could be made in a rice cooker. He wrote several scripts, including most notoriously “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”

Though his voice was gone, his typing seemed only to increase. In 2012, he wrote more than 300 reviews, the most of his career in one year. And after reluctantly joining Twitter in October 2009, he took over the joint, issuing over 30,000 posts on his way to amassing some 840,000 followers.

On the day before his death, he filed yet again to his blog, announcing a “leave of presence” that was thick with self-assignments.

“For now, I am throwing myself into Ebert Digital and the redesigned, highly interactive and searchable,” he said. “You’ll learn more about its exciting new features on April 9 when the site is launched.”

For writers and media companies looking for yet more ways to adjust to the digital tide, Mr. Ebert demonstrated that it is much easier to surf a wave enthusiastically than to crankily swim against it. Great writing, constant reinvention and an excitement about what comes next seem to have done the trick for him. And besides, typing your way off this mortal coil is not a bad way to go.


Twitter: @carr2n

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The Media Equation: How Drudge Has Stayed on Top

By far, most of the traffic from links comes from the sprawling hybrid of Google search and news, which provides about 30 percent of the visits to news sites, according to a report released last week by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, part of the Pew Research Center. And the second? Has to be Facebook, right? Nope. Then Twitter must be the next in line. Except it isn’t.

Give up? It’s The Drudge Report, a 14-year-old site — a relic by Web standards — conceived and operated by Matt Drudge. Using data from the Nielsen Company to examine the top 21 news sites on the Web, the report suggests that Mr. Drudge, once thought of as a hothouse flower of the Lewinsky scandal, is now more powerful in driving news than the half-billion folks on Facebook. (According to the study, Facebook accounted for 3.3 percent of the referrals to news sites, less than half as many as generated by The Drudge Report.)

“When you look at his influence, it cuts across all kind of sites, both traditional news outlets and online-only sites,” said Amy S. Mitchell, the deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and one of the authors of the study. “He was an early and powerful force in setting the news agenda and has somehow maintained that even as there has been a great deal of change in the way people get their news.”

With no video, no search optimization, no slide shows, and a design that is right out of mid-’90s manual on HTML, The Drudge Report provides 7 percent of the inbound referrals to the top news sites in the country. “It’s a real achievement,” said John F. Harris, the co-founder of Politico. “I covered the Clinton White House in 1997 and 1998 and I would never have conceived that he would be an important player in the landscape 12 years later. He does one thing and he does it particularly well. The power of it comes from the community of people that read it: operatives, bookers, reporters, producers and politicians.”

So in a news age when the next big thing changes as often as the weather, how can a guy who broke through on the Web before there was broadband still set the agenda? How can that be?

His durability is, first and foremost, a personal achievement, a testament to the fact that he is, as Gabriel Snyder, who has done Web news for Gawker, Newsweek and now The Atlantic, told me, “the best wire editor on the planet. He can look into a huge stream of news, find the hot story and put an irresistible headline on it.”

On Thursday, a fairly straightforward Reuters article about a NATO attack on Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s compound occupied the skyline of the site with a particularly odious picture of the strongman girded by a headline that blared, “NEXT UP: NATO GOING FOR THE KILL.” Underneath, there were tons of links, news and pictures (Mr. Drudge has a real knack for photo editing) with all kinds of irresistible marginalia: “Desperate Americans Buy Kidneys from Peru Poor” was just above an article about what a prolific e-mailer Osama bin Laden was in spite of his lack of access to the Internet.

Yes, Mr. Drudge is a conservative ideologue whose site also serves as a crib sheet for the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. But if you believe that his huge traffic numbers are a byproduct of an ideologically motivated readership, consider that 15 percent of the traffic at, which is not exactly a hotbed of Tea Party foment, comes from The Drudge Report.

It is, in its own way, a kind of utility, with stable traffic of about 12 million to 14 million unique visitors every month no matter what kind of news is breaking. Everyone goes there because, well, everyone else goes there.

And in the last 14 years, there have been no big redesigns, no big rollout of new features and no staffing up to provide original content. The initial site, designed to load quickly in the age of dial-up modems, remains relatively untouched. (As does Mr. Drudge’s penchant to stay under the radar. He did not respond to e-mails requesting an interview.)

“The genius of Drudge is the simplicity of the layout,” said Matt Labash, a writer for The Weekly Standard. “Everyone else who tries to knock him off complicates that. There’s no tabs. There’s no jumps. There’s hardly any clutter, even if he now runs more headlines than he used to. He’s secure enough in the formula that he’s never changed it.”

Mr. Drudge understood the whole high-low bifurcation that news consumers are drawn to long before there was such a thing as Gawker. Andrew Breitbart, the founder of several conservative Web sites including and the author of “Righteous Indignation,” met him in 1995 when Mr. Drudge was still working at the CBS gift shop in Los Angeles and running the Web site on the side. Mr. Breitbart immediately began helping him.

“Matt Drudge is an American original,” Mr. Breitbart said. “He does not rig search optimization, he does not care about the next big Web innovation, he just has the best nose for news there is. He gives people everything, every single thing, they want to know in a single stop.”

A big part of the reason he is such an effective aggregator for both audiences and news sites is that he actually acts like one. Behemoth aggregators like Yahoo News and The Huffington Post have become more like fun houses that are easy to get into and tough to get out of. Most of the time, the summary of an article is all people want, and surfers don’t bother to click on the link. But on The Drudge Report, there is just a delicious but bare-bones headline, there for the clicking. It’s the opposite of sticky, which means his links actually kick up significant traffic for other sites.

I’ve lived the Drudge effect. Over a decade ago, I was working at, a media news site, and wrote about a poll that had taken place on one of the presidential candidates’ planes that seemed to suggest a liberal bias among the campaign press. Mr. Drudge liked it, for obvious reasons. Our servers melted as we stood back in wonder, staring at what the linked economy meant and how one guy in a fedora seemed to know something we didn’t. He still does.


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