The World’s Most Popular Online Newspaper

How the Daily Mail took the title from the New York Times.

The Mail Online surpassed other online newspapers by building an idenity completely separate from its print product

The world’s most popular online newspaper is not the New York Times, USA Today, or the Wall Street Journal. You may not have ever visited it on purpose. If you’re American, you may not have even heard of it. It’s the Daily Mail.

When online traffic counter comScore announced last week that the lower-middlebrow British tabloid had surpassed the NYT in traffic, drawing 45.3 million unique visitors to the Gray Lady’s 44.8 million, reactions ranged from gleeful to apocalyptic. The Times, rather ungraciously, questioned the metrics. The Daily Mail is first only if you count the traffic to its subsidiary personal finance site, ThisIsMoney, a Times spokeswoman pointed out. Since the Times’ figures don’t include traffic to subsidiaries such as the Boston Globe, the comparison is apples to apples-plus-oranges. “We remain the No. 1 individual newspaper site in the world,” the spokeswoman told Buzzfeed.

Console yourself with that if you must, Times honchos, but you’re missing the bigger picture. In the sentence, “The Daily Mail is now the most popular online newspaper,” the “most popular” claim is the least of the misnomers. The most important thing to know about the Daily Mail’s website (more properly called the Mail Online) is that it’s not really an online newspaper. That’s exactly why it’s so successful.

Unlike traditional online newspapers, the Mail Online bears little resemblance to the British tabloid that spawned it. Consider the differences between the two on Thursday. The Daily Mail’s top story in print that morning was a tale of “valiant villagers” from an obscure British Midlands town who were ordered by the government to tear down a protest camp they had built to “protect” their village from an “illegal gipsy invasion.” The Gypsies, the article noted bitterly, were allowed to stay.

In its xenophobia and parochialism, the piece was typical of the paper, which skews conservative, populist, and suburban. In tone, it stakes out the ground between establishment Tory broadsheets like the the Daily Telegraph and hysterical, barely literate “red top” tabloids like the Sun. If David Brent, Ricky Gervais’ chauvinist, pseudo-educated character on the British version of The Office, reads a newspaper at home, it’s probably the Daily Mail (though he might not admit it). Also typical was the teaser that ran across the top of the paper, advertising a story in its Femail Magazine insert: “Can a marriage survive when the breadwinner is forced to become a househusband?” Aside from its political niche, the Daily Mail has long cultivated female readers with lifestyle, fashion, and home-decorating features.

The Mail Online also targets women, but in an entirely different way. On Thursday morning, the website carried no mention of Gypsies or valiant villagers. Instead, U.S. visitors were greeted with unflattering pictures of actress Cameron Diaz. The headline: “Beware if the wind changes! Cameron Diaz pulls some odd facial expressions while out and about in London.” The brief accompanying story was about, well, Cameron Diaz making some odd facial expressions while out and about in London on a windy day—the unwritten implication being that she just had some type of cosmetic surgery. Another top story Thursday was headlined, “Graffiti artist who painted Facebook’s HQ set for $200 million payday as staff celebrate social network’s $5bn IPO.” It was essentially a shorter, rewritten version of a New York Times story, which mentioned but did not link to the original. It showed no original reporting, but efficiently distilled the more nuanced Times piece into a handful of paragraphs and pictures, leaving out the boring context and philosophizing.

A third headline blared, “Threat from new virus-infected emails which take over your PC even if you DON’T open their attachments.” How could you not click on that? Several others dealt with celebrities, pets, and especially, celebrities’ pets. One was about Lady Gaga and Elton John taking a “pampered pooch” to dinner in Los Angeles. Another had Courtney Love’s daughter alleging that the boozy rock star had, through negligence, killed two family pets.

This is not news, really. It’s click bait, the stuff pageviews are made of. There’s no parochialism, no xenophobia, no mock outrage, and almost no politics—nothing that could limit the potential audience for these pieces, which is, in short, the entire English-speaking online world.

If this seems like the work of an entirely different publication than the print Daily Mail, that’s because it is. The Mail Online is run as a separate entity by top digital editor Martin Clarke, who divides his time between the United States and the United Kingdom. The site has 40 staffers in the U.K., 20 in New York covering U.S. and world news, and 10 in Los Angeles covering show business. Like the content, the audience is mostly separate from the Daily Mail’s: comScore reports that 36 percent of its traffic comes from the United States, compared to 27 percent from the U.K. The website’s American audience alone dwarfs the paper’s print circulation, which, at 2 million, is not shabby but certainly not among the world’s largest.

The Mail’s traffic surge shouldn’t be taken as a sign that tabloids have conquered stodgy broadsheets in the race for online market share. The New York Post is nowhere near the Times in traffic, nor are British tabloids like the Sun. For a legacy media organization, the Daily Mail is in a category of its own. Its singular success is the result of learning one lesson better than any of its competitors: To succeed on the Web, you can’t just make a Web version of your print paper. You have to build a different product, geared to a different audience—one not bounded by geography or social class.

The Times has fared better than most newspapers in the Web age because its focus was national, even global, to begin with. Rather than seeking out an entirely new audience online, it has simply expanded the one it already had. And while it has mostly given up on the idea of a separate digital staff, it still differentiates its Web product by devoting plenty of resources to online-only content such as videos, interactive features, and blogs like FiveThirtyEight and Motherlode. That it remains so popular despite putting up a pay barrier last year is a testament to the site’s value.

On the other hand, newspapers and magazines that have replicated their print product online have fared poorly. “Most legacy news organisations have just assumed that the web would automatically lap up their existing output,” the Mail Online’s Clarke told me via email. “We chose from the outset not to integrate our print and online teams.” The online team, he said, branched out in two directions: “both upmarket, in the sense that we do much more science and foreign news, for example, and downmarket, if you like, in that we also do more show business.” Or, as he told Buzzfeed, “We just do news that people want to read.”

You can disagree with the print Daily Mail’s virulent opposition to unsanctioned Gypsy settlements, but it’s still original reporting guided by genuine values. The Mail Online, by contrast, is not immoral but amoral, driven less by politics than by profit motive. Original reporting, it has apparently decided, is an inefficient way to garner clicks.

The downside to this approach is that it’s not a good way to cultivate a loyal readership. But the new dynamics of Internet news have made this problem moot. Even if more readers make the Times their homepage—which is surely the case—the Mail can make up the difference via search and social-media traffic. Many American readers who don’t think they read the Mail Online probably do—just not on purpose.

The Times’ spokeswoman got flak for saying the Mail is “not in our competitive set.” Though it came across as snooty, it has the benefit of being true. Despite its print roots, the Mail Online has more in common with Web natives like TMZ, MSN, and, especially, the Huffington Post, to which its homepage bears a striking resemblance. Put it in its proper category, and the Mail Online’s astronomical traffic numbers look more down to earth. It’s more popular than TMZ, but it overtook the Huffington Post only recently and still trails MSN News by about 10 million unique visitors. Meanwhile, the Times regains its rightful place as the world’s largest online newspaper.

Shifting around those categories doesn’t change the fact that the Mail Online is on the fast track to profitability while the New York Times Co. just reported yet another disappointing quarter.* That’s not a surprise: Writing and editing original journalism requires a lot more resources than rephrasing other papers’ stories or repeating gossip without checking the facts. The question, then, is not which type of online newspaper fares best. It’s whether any genuine news site can make money online. If not, the Web will soon belong to photos of Elton John’s pampered pooch.

*Correction, Feb. 6, 2012: This article originally stated that the Mail Online is “by most reckonings, wildly profitable.” While exact figures aren’t available, reports indicate that revenues are growing fast but have yet to surpass expenses, due to the cost of the website’s recent editorial expansion in the United States.