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Summary:

Britain’s Daily Mail has eclipsed rivals including the New York Times to become the web’s biggest newspaper. But other media companies hoping to emulate its success will have their work cut out — unless they’re prepared to play fast and loose with the normal rules of journalism.

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It’s official. According to figures from comScore, Britain’s Daily Mail has become the biggest newspaper on the web, hauling its way past everybody else… even the grand old New York Times.

And although the Gray Lady both disputes the figures and looks down its nose at the Mail (it “is not in our competitive set,” a Times spokeswoman snooted to Buzzfeed), it’s fair to say the British tabloid’s rise to prominence online has been quite incredible. After all, just a few years ago, the site hardly existed at all.

So how did a provincial outlet whose editor once described the idea of online newspapers as “bullshit dot com” manage to get more traffic than its rivals? And what can other media businesses learn from its rise to power?

There is no secret formula, just a lot of hustle and plenty of shamelessness. Anyone who thinks the Mail can show them how to succeed in online news must understand its increasing prominence has been the result of editorial choices that not everybody will be prepared to emulate.

However, if you do want to understand how to emulate its success, here are five crucial tactics it has used to reach the No. 1 spot:

Be relentless

The core of the Mail’s success is down to its planet-sized ambition and incredibly aggressive approach to the news. The Mail’s journalists are notorious for stopping at nothing to tell a dramatic story, sometimes regardless of the facts. But though breaking ethical boundaries, ignoring copyright or trampling over sources are bound to be controversial, the paper is entirely unashamed by its desire to win at all costs. That tone is set right from the top with rapacious editor-in-chief Paul Dacre, who retains an iron grip over the paper’s output and is regarded as one of the shrewdest — and most vindictive — editors around.

Be broad

Over time, the Mail’s web operation has gone from being a local concern to being deliberately built to appeal to foreign readers, in particular, Americans. This was a decision taken by the site’s boss, MailOnline editor Martin Clarke, a Fleet Street veteran who now splits his time between New York City and London. Headlines and stories are often written in such a way that the stories transcend location, class and gender.

Love linkbait

The site now has a well-developed editorial outlook that can appeal on both sides of the Atlantic, and to most levels of reader. Its trademarks are straightforward: jaw-dropping, salacious headlines (“Swinging couple in drug-fuelled orgy with sex partner sprayed him with bear repellent after he refused to let them take explicit photos”); paparazzi shots of attractive women and fame-hungry celebrities, often in various states of undress (“Snooki poses in tiny black skirt”); and a constant stream of stories about personal health (“Eating chocolate can stave off bowel cancer”). Sure, it’s not exactly high-end — more TMZ than Times — but it brings in traffic and drives engagement. And even though it does little to pander to SEO with its long, sensational headlines, they have served it particularly well in terms of visibility through social media and sharing online.

Stay free

Although the Mail does operate some paid-for services, such as an iPad app and Kindle delivery, it has regularly said it doesn’t intend to hide its website behind a paywall. In fact, quite the opposite: A little more than a year ago, Clarke said he didn’t believe offering its stories for free on the web harms print sales at all. Instead, he told the New York Observer, he has focused on scale: “The way the web works is that it only makes sense to be free if you’re big.” Competitors may snark that the site doesn’t link out, or that it rips off stories without attribution. And it’s true; they are shameless about it… but hardly alone.

Financial muscle

Perhaps most important to the Mail’s success, however, has been the ongoing financial support from its corporate parents. Although print boss Paul Dacre has little appetite for the web, the broader company has backed the online team and invested millions in their ideas over the years — and it has let them just get on with their job, instead of interfering constantly or switching strategies mid-stream. In particular, the teams who operate the Mail’s website remain largely separate from those who produce the printed product: something which challenges the cost-saving approach of many competitors but allows the teams to focus.

Ultimately, anyone who wants to copy the Mail’s success is in for a tough time. The reasons for its rise are many, but they are either things that are hard to replicate (corporate backing) or rely on editorial choices that many large media companies find distasteful (a fiery mix of right-wing politics, celebrity gossip and prurience).

Still, success is success — whatever you think about its brand of journalism, it is certainly not high church — yet while upmarket audiences and rivals sniff at it, the rest of the world, it seems, couldn’t care less. and in a media industry that is struggling, it is not hard to imagine some who are looking at what the Daily Mail has achieved and thinking they can do the same. Whether anyone has the stomach for it remains to be seen.

  1. Unless I missed something in your article, you didn’t mention the one consistency that makes The Daily Mail more readable than, for example, the L.A Times, Chicago Tribune, NY Times, TMZ, etc: the Mail prints the same stories but with more detail. Over and over again, the Mail will be the first one providing “more to the story”, and then a couple of days later the rest of the sites start printing the same thing. They provide far more photographs in their articles than other sites — and not the same old standbys — and far more information, period. None of the outlets get it right all the time, including the Mail, but MOST of the time, they’re pretty darn accurate. I have been known to visit a site once, read “information” that I knew was ridiculously incorrect — information which had been carelessly, lazily researched, or not researched at all — and make it a point to never visit that site again. On the other hand, I read the Mail everyday.

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    1. Good point: It’s definitely part of its aggressive approach to news, though, to swamp stories that others give a cursory amount of attention to. The Mail certainly does like to add extra detail into stories where it can, though I know from experience that it’s not always accurate.

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  2. So addicted to the Daily Mail that I have had to block the site on my router- five days and counting!

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  3. The writer of this article goes in for the same kind of over-the-top, selective BS which he complains about…in the end the Daily Mail is successful because it’s put together by proper news journalists – ones who are extremely professional, well motivated, and well paid. No amount of ranting by jealous bloggers will change this. There’s no substitute for professional, mainstream, quality journalism.

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    1. So why do they lie about every subject under the sun? Why do they lift so many local stories from papers adding their agenda? why did they lie about WINTERVAL for THIRTEEN YEARS? Good journalism. I’d hate to see bad journalism if you think the shoddy Mail is good. FFS

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    2. Bobbie Johnson Friday, January 27, 2012

      Except, Judy, that I’m not ranting and I actually know what I’m talking about. In fact, I worked for DMGT for several years adjacent to the Mail’s online team (such as it was then) and have many friends and colleagues who have worked at there.

      There is a lot of good journalism done by them — they are happy to employ journalists at a time when the industry’s suffering — but it is also unabashed in its approach to getting readers through whatever means available, and there is also a lot of activity that many would-be emulators would find difficult to get behind: lifting wholesale stories, using images without attribution, manipulating subjects, misquoting, speculating on facts and so on.

      You’re free to believe otherwise, and they are rightly proud to have to support of their readers, but if you think I’m simply concocting this the evidence to back me up is everywhere. You just have to look.

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  4. Who cares about traffic. Tell me how much ad revenue the celeb gossip is getting them.

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    1. Bobbie Johnson Friday, January 27, 2012

      The company doesn’t break out Mail Online from the rest of its digital portfolio (which is extensive) but here’s what they said in their latest annual report:

      “Underlying revenues from the portfolio of digital companies were up 5% year on year to £89 million… profits of £6 million fell marginally on prior year levels.”

      I think it’s safe to say that celeb gossip — which is pretty inexpensive stuff — brings in more ad revenue than it costs the company.

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      1. How do you get that from your quote. You said profits fell. That would imply that it cost them more to generate that revenue. Plus, try looking at this story from one of your rivals. They made $20M bucks in 2010. That’s pitiful. http://paidcontent.co.uk/article/419-mail-online-revenue-growing-slower-than-audience/

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  5. “…in the end the Daily Mail is successful because it’s put together by proper news journalists – ones who are extremely professional, well motivated, and well paid. No amount of ranting by jealous bloggers will change this. There’s no substitute for professional, mainstream, quality journalism.”

    Question: I guess in their attempt to produce as many articles as humanly possible before the competition, they don’t see the need to proofread? I’ve noticed their articles have errors, minor and major. You’d think that proper journalists would do more research.

    Also they may have millions of views but not as many shares. What’s the point of being viewed on the Internet if no one cares to share your articles.

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