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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.