British Tabloid Strikes Gossip Gold Online

An argument for isolating print and Web newsrooms

In a time when many American news organizations are trying to consolidate their print and Web operations, The Daily Mail in the UK seems to be finding success in keeping them separate.

As The Guardian’s Peter Preston wrote last week, the Mail’s Web newsroom is isolated from the print newsroom, and they each have separate management, staff, and budget. Nor does the content overlap much. The print version is a familiar tabloid format, with a mix of national news and celebrity gossip. The Web version is primarily filled with celebrity photographs, gossip, and outrageous news bits.

As Preston put it, there is no reason that news Web sites must simply copy and paste content from their print versions: “On the contrary, the most successful [sites] are more like inspired riffs on a print theme. Nor is there a rule that says big print sellers carry the same clout when they transfer to screen.” Which is why the Mail must offer something more click-worthy—if not more substantial—to attract Web visitors. And keeping these entities separate, Preston argued, has led to the Daily Mail’s “online miracle”:

Take the Mail in print. Around 1.9 million punters buying a copy every day, which means 4,881,000 readers scanning their favourite sheet each morning. And online, the growth from nothing much four years ago to 40,500,000 unique browsers a month is verging on the phenomenal: up 72% year on year.

A sampling of the site’s headlines from last week gives you an idea of the Mail’s flavor: “Mother’s terror as gang of masked robbers hold knife to baby’s throat in raid on her home,” “Sultry Shakira’s hips don’t lie (and neither do her legs),” “Two women seriously ill after drinking aloe vera juice they bought at school fair which was laced with horse tranquiliser.” The site is almost entirely populated with stories of strange crimes, accidental deaths, abandoned-animal tearjerkers, and celebrities in bikinis.

Each quick-hit piece seems to be designed to elicit a “Whoa, I can’t believe that!” from a casual reader. Other sites (BuzzFeed and FailBlog come to mind) have the same effect, with their frequently updated lists of weird little things that are just perfect for someone bored at work who wants a distraction for a few seconds. On the other hand, thanks to its navigable design and its massive amount of content on its super-scroll home page, the Mail could potentially keep readers on the site for a while.

The difference between the Mail and sites like BuzzFeed, of course, is that the Mail is affiliated with an actual newspaper, with actual reporters. But maybe this model has potential: the Mail can use its Web site to turn a profit, which in turn could subsidize its print version. Some print papers, afraid of diluting their brands, might scoff at this strategy. And it’s certainly easier for a tabloid like the Mail to do this than it is for another, more “serious” newspaper. The Web sites of The New York Times or The Washington Post probably aren’t about to forgo in-depth investigations for nonstop celebrity coverage.

Still, the content aside, there may be a lesson to the Mail’s online success. Rather than trying to be all things to all readers, the site picked one thing to do, and then did it extremely well. It then expanded that one thing in a way that would get the most clicks possible, without feeling the responsibility to try to integrate a lot of print content that wouldn’t fit into that niche.

Preston predicts the Mail’s site can actually turn a profit, and potentially use the surplus to “turn the Mail’s red ink into black,” all without a paywall. Where it will succeed, the Mail’s site will do so because it operates on the Web’s terms, not print’s terms. “There is no rule that says online papers must play print’s little brother,” he wrote.

I would explain why I agree with him, but I have some reading to do: first, the latest installment of “Top Secret America,” and then “TV presenter has severe asthma attack live on air after swallowing a mosquito.”

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner