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.