How Andrew Breitbart Changed Digital Media

Much of the talk about Andrew Breitbart today, in the wake of his death, has focused on his politics, which people either tend to love or hate. But there was another side to him — the digital media pioneer. Here’s that story.

One day in early 1998, when I was working as a news writer for E! Online in Los Angeles, one of our web producers, Andrew Breitbart, introduced me to the spindly friend he’d been raving about for the past six months, Matt Drudge. “Matt is going to revolutionize journalism,” Andrew had told me weeks earlier, during one of his daily pontifications in front of the lunch trucks that lined mid-Wilshire: rants that would touch on his love of Dodgers baseball, his quest for low-cost Saab automotive repair and his obsessive hatred of Bill Clinton.

I, like most of the people on staff, regarded Andrew with mostly incredulous curiosity: How could this kid who played shortstop at Beverly Hills High, and who seemed to fit in so well in affluent Santa Monica, be concerned about the Second Amendment. Did he even own a gun?

Perhaps we were so caught up with what seemed like performance art – in his late 20s, he was just learning how to meld the William F. Buckley reading he’d done the night before into clever, fiery, entirely hyperbolic rhetoric — that we somehow missed a different transformation: that the guy who did HMTL maintenance work for us also happened to be one of the sharpest new media minds of the early 21st century. He was a guy who understood the power of aggregation, curation, viral distribution and social networking quicker than almost anyone.

I shook hands with the white, pasty dude Andrew introduced me to (no, he wasn’t wearing the trademark fedora at the time), and didn’t think much of it. I went back to writing about Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the Spice Girls.

Drudge went back to his one-bedroom Hollywood apartment, and just days later broke the biggest story of the 1990s, the Monica Lewinsky affair, on the site he maintained that included a simple white page with sticky headlines that linked to other outlets. It was a novel concept at the time.

Andrew would soon leave us to help build The Drudge Report into a site that, according to an Outbrain study conducted last year, now controls about 7 percent of all internet referral traffic. By the time I caught up with him again, in 2008, Andrew had also helped a socialite and aspiring political gadfly, Arianna Huffington, build a multi-million dollar media asset, also based on the low-cost aggregation of ideologically slanted content. And online media was fully under the command of the so-called “link economy,” a system that Andrew helped pioneer, with this zest for often-lurid news mixed with sensationalized headlines.

At that time, Andrew was building his own Big Hollywood internet empire, using the same Huffington Post model, employing an underpaid-to-unpaid legion of ideologically driven content creators — and using the same polarizing voice he’d perfected over two decades. He was not only riding the content-aggregation wave, he was also tapping into emerging social-media platforms.

Of course, these days the web is awash in aggregation and curation, not to mention shrill headlines. And there are increasing questions about whether those tactics are best path to building a loyal audience and, more importantly, a profitable business. But he was several years ahead of the curve with this playbook, and his tactics were quickly mimicked by legions of bloggers and news sites.

His 4,770 Facebook friends and more than 73,600 Twitter followers were the big tent, where true believers came to worship and the vitriolic opposition came to fight. They collectively helped Breitbart build a multi-platform media career that, beyond the Big Hollywood network of sites, also included books, myriad paid speaking engagements and countless cable TV news appearances. It’s a media model that other conservative gadflies, namely ousted Fox (NSDQ: NWS) News personality Glenn Beck, have successfully copied.

What he did wasn’t always pretty or well-received by everyone – and as a journalist, I myself grappled with plenty of cognitive dissonance when approaching the affable Andrew over the years.

Working with Drudge, he essentially created a Napster for newspapers, helping to spur the free-fall of an entire medium. And at the UGC-focused HuffPo, he helped lay the groundwork for the content farming movement that followed.

Did he mean half of the inflammatory ultra-conservative stuff that came out of his fleshy mouth? I don’t know – I can say it often seemed out of step with the charming, clever, entirely likable guy Andrew presented when you’d run into him roller-blading on the Venice Beach bike path. I never asked him, but I always wondered – when he fought some “entitled, elitist, unenlightened” lefty on Twitter, screamed his righteous indignation into a press-conference microphone, or rightly or wrongly helped ruin a government worker’s career – if he was merely aping, at least to some degree, the antics of World Wrestling Entertainment.

But one thing is clear: He knew well how to use the tools of digital media to become a brand.