The other tabloid war: ‘Mail Online’ and ‘Daily News’ duke it out in digital

Colin Myler and Martin Clarke. ()
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Mail Online, the loud and lurid website of England's favorite middle-market tabloid, The Daily Mail, has a lot to brag about right now.

Since formally constituting its American operation, the site has capitalized on coverage of sensational mass-market news and click-friendly fluff to bring its total number of unique visitors in the U.S. to 19.4 million as of last month (a 24 percent increase from 2012), according to the digital measurement firm comScore.

That was enough for a third-place finish, behind The New York Times and the Tribune Co. papers, on comScore's latest ranking of top American newspaper websites.

Mail Online has even outstripped digital-news operations that have added massive firepower over the past 12 months, like Buzzfeed, which clocked in at around 18.7 million U.S. uniques in May.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

The site's U.S. audience is now larger than its readership in the U.K., bringing the promise of a boon to revenues for its parent company, Daily Mail and General Trust. And they're still spending: with headquarters in New York and L.A., the site's U.S.-based staff now numbers around 80, up from a reported half dozen in January 2011, when Mail Online first washed ashore here.

This rise was not, of course, to go unchallenged. And lately, Mail Online has been feeling an unexpected thorn in its side.

Over the past two months, five journalists from Mail Online's Soho-based Manhattan operation have quit to go work at the Daily News, which is beginning to nip at Mail Online's heels in the race for U.S. web traffic. The competition adds a new front, and a new dimension, to New York City's long-standing and much-ballyhooed tabloid war.

"The need for an established U.S. title to poach staff from a British interloper shows Mail Online's immense impact," said Roy Greenslade, a journalism professor at City University London and a media critic for The Guardian. "It confirms the Mail's success, but also shows the determination of the Daily News to fight back."

The person driving the News' traffic growth and the flow of talent from Mail Online is Ted Young, digital editor of the News for the past year. And he's the right man for the job: Young was the editor of Mail Online until spring 2012. That May, the News, under the editorship of fellow Fleet Street alumnus Colin Myler, hired him to run its website. Four of the recent acquisitions from Young's alma mater—Tom Durante, Beth Stebner, Nina Golgowski and Leslie Larson—now report to him. Stebner, it's worth noting, also used to be a reporter at the New York Post.

(For the record, Young said the News didn't "poach" any of them: "They heard the Daily News site is booming and they came to us because they wanted to be part of the excellent team we are building here. I am just delighted they have shown such prescience.")

The fifth and most recent hire, Tim Perone, is replacing Gersh Kuntzman on the news desk now that Kuntzman is running nydailynews.com's just-launched local vertical.

"People at all the Mail titles are trained to a very high standard, the highest," said George Simpson, a spokesman for Mail Online. "So having our people poached by competitors who can't be bothered to train their own staff is a fact of life."

But it appears that the Mail is taking the talent scramble seriously. One senior News employee told Capital he knew of at least three print reporters and three online journalists from the News who'd been approached to work for Mail Online, unsuccessfully; likewise, an ex-Mail Online source said editors have pushed to hire away journalists from the New York tabloids. They've managed in at least one instance: Perone was a reporter and re-write guy at the Post before Mail Online hired him as a Manhattan-based assistant news editor this past January. He lasted a full six months before following his four colleagues out the door.

"Any news organization that is growing as fast as Mail Online, especially in the U.S., is on the lookout for future talent," said Simpson. "We fish where the fish are."

New Yorkers are accustomed to trash talk between their local tabloids, keeping a daily score of whose front page "wood," sitting side by side on the newsstand, is the more outrageous. And last year, when News owner Mortimer Zuckerman hired Myler, late of Rupert Murdoch's scandal-tainted News of the World (and himself a Post alumnus), to revamp the paper, Myler was game to play up the decades-old rivalry.

"It's going to be fun," he told The Guardian at the time.

But behind the scenes, the Daily News has had the jump on the Post in taking its digital operation seriously. In fits and starts in terms of strategy, and yet always devoting significant budget to an independent online operation, the News gained massive national audience share over the Post on the web in recent years. The Post, which is now working on its first really significant digital reboot under the stewardship of ex-Gawker editor Remy Stern, has been playing catch-up.

With the Post in its dust, the News now wants to shave off some of Mail Online's market share by essentially replicating them. And it looks like it could pay off.

Nabbing Young was a keen offensive on Myler's part—a tactical calculation that reflected the cutthroat spirit of British newspapering. In redesigning nydailynews.com, the News borrowed heavily from the aesthetic Young was accustomed to at his former employer, giving its homepage a Mail Online-style makeover (the sites are nearly identical) while at the same time ramping up celebrity and national coverage in a bid to compete with Mail Online more aggressively.

With 14.9 million unqiue U.S. visitors in May, according to comScore, the News trailed Mail Online by roughly 5 million unique visitors last month. (The Post's website scored a comparatively measly 6.96 million.)

Of course with designs on global domination, Mail Online is a formidable contender. In terms of traffic to newspaper websites, there were only two in the world, China's People's Daily and Xinhua News Agency, whose visitors eclipsed Mail Online's 50.23 million for the month of May, according to comScore, an analyst for which noted that Mail Online is the most widely read online newspaper brand in the Western hemisphere.

A weakness the News appears to be exploiting? Mail Online's churn rate.

People who have worked for the site both in the U.S. and London described it to Capital as a content farm with high staff turnover and an atmosphere that can at times be heated.

In addition to the five people who recently left for the News, one source rattled off the names of eight high-ranking newsroom employees who've exited Mail Online's London offices over the past year-and-a-half. They include Danny Wheeler, who announced last month he was leaving his post as editor of Mail Online for a new job in Australia (presumably with New Corp's newspaper arm there). Wheeler was replaced by Danny Groom, who'd been Mail Online's U.S. editor, and who was in turn succeeded by his deputy, Katherine Thomson, formerly of The Huffington Post and (funnily enough) the Daily News.

More than one veteran of Mail Online's New York office recalled monotonous nine- to 11-hour shifts compensated with annual salaries in the ballpark of $50,000. The emphasis is on quick-turnaround aggregation and rewriting other people's articles without editors looking over copy before it gets published live. (Mail Online has had repeated scraps with photo agencies and other news outlets about lifting material without proper attribution or pay.) The ex-staffers also had complaints about management, such as a rule requiring employees to ask for vacation days four to five months in advance even though they might not get approved until a week or two ahead of the requested time off.

"We have high expectations of our staff, which is breaking new ground delivering online stories people actually read," said Simpson, the company spokesman. "It is not an environment for everyone."

Mail Online's office in a converted loft space on Greene Street between Broome and Grand streets was described as stark and bland. It's mostly rows of desks and computers, with several flat-screen TVs on a wall where the reporters and editors sit and glass offices in the back. There are roughly 45 employees altogether, including about a dozen staff reporters, give or take, and "an army of freelancers," as one source put it, who fill in gaps on nights and weekends. The newsroom is that type of modern-day digital bullpen where people come in, put there heads down and type. Phone calls to sources are rare, and the place feels isolating and quiet—save but for the occasional screaming of Mail Online publisher Martin Clarke, who splits his time between New York and London.

In one instance last year, when Clarke's computer was acting up, according to sources who were present, he loudly berated a member of the I.T. staff, showering the employee with invective and flinging his keyboard in the poor guy's direction.

"Martin has indeed slammed lots of keyboards in his time, but does not recall actually throwing one at someone," said Simpson. (To be fair, several of Clarke's former employees said he could be charming and friendly in social situations. "He's either a lion or a lamb," is how one of them put it.)

The News, for its part, seems to be enjoying the mini-exodus.

"We are delighted that so many people from Mail Online have joined the Daily News," said a spokesman when asked about the recent hires. "They clearly respect the paper's reputation and see our website, where traffic is booming, as a place where they can stretch their wings as journalists."

Asked about Mail Online's New York- and L.A.-based expansion strategy in the coming months, Simpson said the U.S headcount will only get bigger.

"We plan to expand in both locations," he said. "We're one of the few news organizations in the world actually in growth mode."

(Ed. note: This article was updated with a quote clarifying that the News did not "poach" journalists from Mail Online.)