Is the Daily Mail the Most Important Newspaper in the World?

Jens Mortensen

For 119 years it has been the newspaper for middle Britain, with steady (and splashy) coverage of crime, scandals, and high society. Now with 70 million regular readers in the United States, DailyMail.com is on its way to becoming the news site for America. How did Fleet Street come to Main Street?

The first thing Martin Clarke sees every morning are numbers. The publisher and editor in chief of DailyMail.com, the website of the 119-year-old London newspaper, starts every day looking at yesterday’s online stories. He wakes at 6 a.m. in downtown New York and reaches for his iPad. How many readers visited DailyMail.com? Which of the on-air shooting-in-Virginia posts were most widely read? Are people more interested in Caitlyn or Kendall Jenner? Cecil the lion or stowaway pythons? Hillary or Trump?

What’s key to Clarke is how many people came to the site directly, not through social media. The 50-year-old Brit is a newspaper guy at heart—“Everything I do is based on old newspaper thinking,” he’s fond of saying—so he looks at his daily unique visitors as a loyal subscriber base. In fact, he calls them customers. He needs to keep them happy—and stick around. Right now, readers visit twice a day and spend about 12.5 minutes a visit. A newspaper site’s average is three. More than four times the average keeps advertisers happy, too. Let’s be honest, those are the customers. Remember, he’s a businessman and a journalist. Yes, he wants to give readers what they want, but his mission is to give advertisers what they need. Because, and this is clear to everyone who works with Clarke (who’s rumored to be taking over the top print job in London), he wants the Daily Mail brand to endure.

“What we’re reading online now,” Clarke says from behind his desk one afternoon in August, “and whatever succeeds will be the destination products that will live on after newspapers eventually disappear over the horizon.” Outside his glass doors, in a generic East Village building, more than 200 reporters and editors are making that happen—and making Clarke’s site the most-read English-language newspaper site in the world. That’s an honor that belonged to the New York Times until 2012, but unlike NYTimes.com, DailyMail.com is free.

Launched in 2010, DailyMail.com has at once furthered the Daily Mail brand and created its own. In the process, the splashy website (it’s not owned by Rupert Murdoch but it could be described as Murdochian) has also become America’s one-stop shop for news. Okay, “news.” The site offers a journalistic perspective swerving between the second hour of the Today show and Hoda and Kathie Lee two-glasses-of-Chardonnay-deep in the fourth. And like the high-low mix of morning television, DailyMail.com is nonstop watercooler chum, with more than 1,100 posts a day, some originally reported and some aggregated from other sites. Known to rewrite headlines in the middle of the night (he calls it “tickling”), Clarke is thoroughly at the helm.

A nearly 30-year veteran of the Daily Mail empire (including serving as the executive editor of Mail on Sunday), Clarke actually spent his teenage years in suburban London delivering Daily Mail newspapers door-to-door. Today, he’s a Fleet Street editor with the nervous energy of a millennial tech CEO: no long stories, as many photos as possible, and give the story away in the headline. Clarke has moved us to a point where we don’t even have to double click. Hell, we barely have to read. “We could only fight against the tides of history for so long,” Clarke says of coming to New York. “The only plan B [for newspapers] was to join the kind of digital-only players going for big global-scale play.” He
solemnly declares: “We have to be a broader church.”

“The notion that journalists were the gatekeepers and arbiters of what was fit to print has eroded in the Internet era,” says Rick Edmonds, media analyst for the Poynter Institute—an organization functioning as journalism’s hall monitor. Jim Kelly, the former Time magazine managing editor who’s now a Vanity Fair contributor, agrees. He says the erosion has opened up space for brands like the Daily Mail: “It’s shaping the sensibility of even something like BuzzFeed—and without listicles. People say it’s a guilty pleasure. What they mean is: It’s a pleasure.”

We’re right where Clarke wants us. Last year Michael Wolff wrote in USA Today: “The Daily Mail solves Internet paradox.” Indeed. The site attracts 230 million unique visitors a month worldwide, according to Omniture. Without a paywall, the website is extremely profitable and almost doubled its U.S. revenue last year to $95 million. Here in the U.S., according to comScore, which does not publicly release its comprehensive global unique statistics, DailyMail.com ranks 33rd among American media sites, with 70 million monthly uniques, falling after ESPN. Google is No. 1 with 243 million, BuzzFeed is 25th, and Fox News, with 58 million, is 42nd.

As newspapers remain in layoff-buyout free fall, when major newspapers such as the New York Times (No. 39 on comScore) seem stuck in a series of redefinitions, the Daily Mail may just be the most important newspaper in the world. Back home, with about 2 million readers, it is a right-leaning, Tory-reading newspaper that leads with fear and boobs and comes with Big Mac coupons. Clarke says, “It’s Marmite in London, you either love it or hate it.” In the U.S., DailyMail.com is drawing a more general audience because of its solid mission statement: It is everything. To everyone.

It’s a tabloid: Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Kim Richards placed under ‘involuntary psychiatric hold’.... It’s news: Revealed: Soulless interior of TV killer Vester Flanagan’s apartment where the only decorations are modelling shots of HIM. It’s small-town: Take me, too! Upset pets look the picture of misery as they watch their owners pack for holidays. It’s political, kind of: EXCLUSIVE: Hillary Clinton’s camp fears a new ‘bimbo eruption’ will put the kibosh on candidacy.... And, of course, there’s a hearty helping of sexy, sunny celeb coverage: Having a blast! Kendall Jenner tries out a jetpack while sporting a daring swimsuit on family holiday in St. Barts. Says Kris Jenner: “It’s my baby monitor. I use the Daily Mail to track my children.”

Adding to the everythingness is the site’s design of photo-heavy stories (some include as many as 60 images; they publish 10,000-plus a day) and information-packed headlines. “It’s like an overstuffed English drawingroom,”Kellysays.ButEdmondsasks,“Afteralltheheadlines, do you have the story?” Clarke has a solid Weltanschauung. “My only agenda is to cover news, in its broadest sense.” He pauses. “What’s
wrong with playing to the middle?”

Clarke looks past a comprehensive selection of Cholula hot sauces at the three screens behind his desk that monitor his site and the competition’s (including Huffington Post, Drudge Report, and Murdoch’s Fox News) and mutters that a story about severely sunburned boys in Oklahoma never should have led the homepage. “A bit grisly.” He points to the newsroom and to all the available desks. He’s live in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Sydney, but Clarke teases to elsewhere. “We’ll leave the Middle East to Arianna [Huffington],” he says. They haven’t met. “I don’t go to Davos,” he adds, rolling his eyes.

But he watches her every move. “I’d like to be read by as many people as possible. If you look at the big digital players like HuffPo, BuzzFeed, we’re all playing the same game. We’re all in our own way covering roughly the same content. And we’re all trying to be global and international because you need the economy of scale to make any money. You’ve got to be big.” And by big, he means easy to read. “I don’t give a f--k what the New York Times is doing. I’m not playing to an intellectual crowd. Tabloid isn’t a dirty word to me.”

Tabloids sell. American supermarket-weekly editors are devoted fans—and consider it a competitor. An editor at a major weekly (who didn’t even realize the Daily Mail was a paper in the U.K.) says their office refers to the site as “the Torah.” The editor acknowledges, “We all know the same stuff. We’re never like, ‘Holy shit, how did they get that?’ But it’s good because it’s all in one place.”

The site does get exclusives. Candace Trunzo, DailyMail.com senior news editor in New York, is a rare adult in the newsroom, having worked at Time and served as executive editor of the National Enquirer and editor in chief of Star. She came to the site in 2014, and has broken two huge stories: the first in-depth interview with Barbara Bowman, one of Bill Cosby’s first accusers, and what’s known around the office as “When Tori Spelling fell into the fire at Benihana.” (DailyMail.com does not release numbers on individual stories, but a representative says, “The two are among our most successful.”)

She can spot a Daily Mail story like Clarke can, although both are vague on what that means. He says it has to be interesting. “Will it be read?” is his litmus test. Trunzo says, “I know it when I see it.” Plus, she has cash. “We will pay,” she admits. “We will pay for photos. We will pay for videos. And we will pay sources sometimes.” For the recent series revisiting “the bimbos of Bill Clinton’s years in office” both Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers received money.

A former employee who worked at the site for a year says Clarke “doesn’t want quote-unquote journalism.” The employee says, “He hates people who are like, ‘Oh, my journalism... I went to Columbia.” Plus, Clarke’s constant pressure to “Put it up! Put it up now!” was overwhelming. But it works. Earlier this year, DailyMail.com identified the terrorist known as Jihadi John. But as is the way of the Web, they run the risk of putting up erroneous information, such as when they published a story concerning George Clooney’s wedding and Amal Clooney’s family not approving. (Clooney wrote an op-ed in USA Today about it and Clarke admits, “We really did get that one wrong.”) Then there is the now-common online practice of aggregating other sites’ content without giving credit. In March, former freelance employee James King wrote a post for Gawker outlining a year spent “stealing” stories from other sites for the DailyMail.com. (The DailyMail.com strongly refuted King’s claim.) Both incidents have chipped away at what credibility the site has.

“Think about what a newspaper does,” says Luke McKernan, the lead news curator at the British Library, which houses every copy of the Daily Mail, along with every other newspaper printed in Britain. “It anchors you in the real world. It’s how you understand your world; it’s where you put yourself in this time and place. That is what newspapers have always meant in Britain and the rest of the world.”

“There is a revolt in journalism today,” McKernan, 54, continues. “People are struggling—what is the meaning of news? What is online news? The people who are producing it haven’t even figured it out. And, by the way, who is producing it?” McKernan, who’s been in the library for seven years, points out that in fact the Daily Mail has done this once before. “In the 19th century the news could only be read by the elite,” he says. “It was priced and taxed accordingly, to keep the ‘right’ people reading it.” The Daily Mail launched in 1896—“A penny newspaper for one-halfpenny.” Says McKernan, “The paper democratized news. Reading a daily came to symbolize betterment in society,” as there was a newly literate middle class to serve. Of course, there was push back. Lord Salisbury, prime minister at the time, famously sniffed, “It is written by office boys, read by office boys.”

Lord Northcliffe—Alfred Charles William Harmsworth, first viscount Northcliffe—started in publishing in the late 1800s and struck gold with the Daily Mail. In his first issue (“An entirely new idea in morning journalism,” he headlined), Northcliffe gave Britain a now-familiar formula over eight pages: gossip, games, female-centric coverage (radical at the time), and some news. More than a century later the Mail has won Newspaper of the Year six times in the British Press Awards—twice as many prizes as any other paper and has absorbed many readers after Murdoch’s phone hacking scandal in 2011. In August I walked across a white marble floor and found myself staring up at a marble bust of the viscount underneath a soft-white, soaring four-story atrium. Originally designed to be a hotel, which explains the glass elevators, Northcliffe House is where the Daily Mail, the DailyMail.com (known as Mail Online in the U.K.), Mail on Sunday, the London Evening Standard (now owned by the Lebedev family), and the free paper Metro are produced. The publicly traded parent company, Daily Mail and General Trust, is here, too, run by Jonathan Harmsworth, the fourth viscount Rothermere.

Upstairs, Rhiannon Macdonald runs DailyMail.com. As managing editor, she oversees the teams around the globe. “I was addicted to the site before I started working here,” she says. Macdonald says people like to work at the Daily Mail because, “This is where history is being written. We are dutifully serving that purpose.”

She looks at her computer and directs me with the stern but upbeat tenor of a flight attendant to the infamous “sidebar of shame,” the right-hand column on the site’s home page. “Sidebar of fame,” Macdonald snaps. When she scrolls past Gwen Stefani’s divorce, Macdonald becomes genuinely concerned. “I’m not surprised about Gavin Rossdale and Gwen. They haven’t been photographed together in a while.” She touches her neck. “I get quite emotional about divorces.”

Macdonald started her career at the Evening Standard, where she quickly moved up and paved the way for 49 percent of women at the company to make it to upper management. Women are important to DailyMail.com, too: 54 percent of the readership is female, ranging between the ages of 25 and 34. Macdonald reminds me that Kim Kardashian has helped raise Daily Mail’s profile in the U.S. Indeed, her fame has paralleled the site’s. The reality star was featured in DailyMail.com’s 2013 “seriously popular” ad campaign, alongside Kim Jong-un—“We cover both the Kims”—and Kardashian and her mother attended the site’s party in Cannes this year. Does Macdonald miss the depth over at the Standard? “I think if we were to worry about the weight of the world here in this room today we could get very depressed.”

British royals once read newspaper stories curated by courtiers who delivered clippings to them each morning in velvet boxes. But Piers Morgan, who serves as the site’s U.S. editor at large, says Prince Harry reading DailyMail.com on his iPad (says the Daily Mail’s royal editor) is what today’s news business is all about.

“What I love about the Daily Mail,” he says, seated at his regular table in a Kensington bar, “is that I’m writing for the biggest platform of any newspaper columnist in the world.” Morgan is DailyMail.com’s hood ornament. Formerly editor in chief of News of the World and host of Piers Morgan Live, on CNN, where he took over Larry King’s seat, and a judge on America’s Got Talent, Morgan hops regularly between the U.K. and the U.S.—and daily between news and entertainment. Vacillating between a blowhard Fleet Street editor wanting the lowercase t truth and the kind of man who casually drops anecdotes about Oscar parties at a working-class pub, he is the arrhythmically beating heart of infotainment.

He takes a swig of his London Pride ale. “When I see some of the traction numbers on the site, I’m like, ‘bloody hell.’ I’m aware of the tremendous power that the DailyMail.com has. It’s terrifying.”

Morgan points to two reasons for its success. One, the mix. “The twin imposters of triumph and disaster on DailyMail.com pages are treated with equal sanguinity, if that’s a word.” And two, it’s free. “The Mail has got the New York Times bouncing off the walls with envy, and I’m sure Rupert Murdoch looks at the Daily Mail empire with great envy because they all took punts on subscriptions and pay walls and protecting the content. They all slightly missed the fact that young people don’t want to pay for anything. They’re not interested. They’re gonna get it somewhere else.” Besides, he says, it’s all on DailyMail.com. If it’s not, just wait a few minutes. “If you want to know what’s going on in the world, I’m not sure why you would go anywhere else. I’m not sure you’re gonna miss anything. If there’s something good in the New York Times or the Daily Beast or Huffington Post or Guardian or anywhere else, these guys will just Hoover it up and have a version of it in 20 minutes.”