Ed Driscoll

Gray Lady Down: Has the London Daily Mail Overtaken the NY Times?

“The Daily Mail has overtaken the New York Times to become the world’s most visited newspaper website, according to online tracking service Comscore,” the BBC claims. “The biggest increase in readers has been in the US — so how did this very British institution do it?”

There is something compellingly simple about MailOnline. No fancy site navigation, picture carousels or slideshows – just a front page with stories and pictures. Thousands of them.

The New York Times claims it is still the world’s most popular newspaper website, because the Mail figures include visits to sister sites.

But let that not detract from the British newspaper’s achievement in going from nowhere to 45.3 million unique visitors a month in just five years. What is its secret?

1. Celebrity news

MailOnline’s success in the United States has been partly built, most pundits agree, on celebrity gossip. It is a very different beast from its more strait-laced print sister, even though it shares a lot of content with it.

Celebrity journalist and author Jo Piazza believes it is much imitated by rival US-based gossip sites.

Speaking in frank terms, she says: “Until we started seeing this influx of gossip websites here in the United States, the media was very ass-kissy towards celebrities, whereas the Daily Mail has never done that.

Just as an aside, this has long been one of the greatest failings of the Los Angeles Times. It has Hollywood right in its backyard, and yet, perhaps because it’s so “ass-kissy towards celebrities” (when it isn’t really ass-kissy towards politicians), it can’t get out of its own way and run amok covering the endless Hieronymus Bosch tableaux outstretched before them, that’s begging for them to report on it, in a fun, breezy way.

In a way, the problem is even worse at its northeastern cousin, as William McGowan noted in his landmark 2010 deconstruction of the New York Times’ myriad woes, Gray Lady Down:

“The entire social and moral compass of the paper,” as the former Times art critic Hilton Kramer later said, was altered to conform to a liberal ethos infused with “the emancipatory ideologies of the 1960’s” and drawing no distinction between “media-induced notoriety and significant issues of public life.” The Times took on more and more lightness of being. It became preoccupied with pop-culture trivia and über urban trends, reported on with moral relativism and without intellectual rigor.

The change was met by disaffection and derision within the paper’s newsroom. Grace Gluek, who ran the culture desk for a while as replacement editor, was one of the disaffected, and famously once asked, “Who do I have to f*** to get out of this job?” Howard Kissel, the theater critic of the Daily News, said the new cultural pages reminded him of a middle-aged woman learning how to disco: “She put on a miniskirt and her varicose veins are showing.” Gerry Gold, a staff reporter, commented, “We do all these pieces on pop icons as if they are important artistes. In fact they are creations of the big record companies. Yet we try to intellectualize them.”

That last sentence dovetails well with the other reason why the London Daily Mail is blowing the doors off the Times, which not surprisingly, the BBC can’t fully articulate, because it’s one of their own institutional weaknesses: It’s having fun. As Mark Steyn said, nearly six years ago:

In London, the most competitive newspaper market in the world, papers thrive by encouraging distinctive controversial voices. In America, the average Gannett or other monodaily prefers a tone of self-regarding dullness. As my friend John O’Sullivan put it, “They neither offend nor delight” – as a matter of policy. Yes, they’re broadly “liberal,” but not in a lively virtuoso engaging way, only in a dreary J-school way. I think they’re missing the point here. They don’t realize that they do have competitors now, in new media. In 1978, having driven your print competitors out of business, you could afford to be a dull city newspaper. I don’t believe you can now.

Of course, it’s often the case that generating the appearance of having fun requires an enormous amount of hard work (just ask Fred Astaire, who sweated blood to make his dance routines appear effortless). But readers can sense a paper with an institutional sense of playfulness, versus one that’s attempting to Very Seriously Talk Down To Them From High Atop The Mountains. Which has long been the message from the Times, particularly since Pinch transformed it from a fairly reliable (Duranty aside) straightforward news source into such a personality-driven paper, one of the leitmotifs of McGowan’s book. And the sense that readers get from those personalities is that:

  • Krugman hates everybody, particularly Occupy Wall Street, since they’re too stupid to realize how they got played by one of the ultimate One Percenters.
  • Friedman wants to turn America into totalitarian China, as long as he gets to keep his mansion.
  • Pinch blames all of modern America’s shortcomings on his generation’s failures. And we really must all consume less for the environment. But in the meantime, damn, that new Dylan CD sure sounds fantastic on the CL600’s sound system while cruising over to the Hamptons, doesn’t it?
  • MoDo really needs a drink and a smoke. And maybe a kicky new pair of Manolo Blahniks.

In contrast, the New York Post is having loads of fun with its over-the-top-headlines. Matt Drudge brings a similar tone to his coverage. At the Wall Street Journal, James Taranto at least is having fun rounding up the biggest stories of the day, and deflating the pretensions of the “progressive” elite. Here at PJM, Steve Green, Roger Kimball, the mysterious Zombie, and Roger Simon, our Maximum Pajamahadeen, among others here, bring a welcome sense of humor to the grim news of the day. (As does Glenn Reynolds, who single-handedly seems to crank out more links daily than all of Pinch’s bloated enterprise.)

Oh, and one other reason why the Daily Mail is winning the newspaper war: it is willing to deflate the religious beliefs held most dear by the management and editorial bullpen of the New York Times.

As Peter Biskind wrote in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, when Robert Altman’s nimble, low-budget, no-name cast adaptation of Richard Hooker’s novel M*A*S*H overtook Mike Nichols’ leaden, spare-no-expense all-star version of Joseph Heller’s similarly-themed Catch-22 at the box office in 1970, Altman hung a sign in his office that said “CAUGHT-22.” The increasingly far left worldview that pervades the New York Times’ offices as badly as it does Mayor Bloomberg’s, has transformed it into a paper that’s full of Catch-22s, a newspaper far more concerned with ideological purity than actually reporting news that people want to read in a lively fashion. If the Daily Mail really has overtaken the Gray Lady’s Web traffic, all I’m left to ponder is, what took them so long?

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