Bethany Usher is a principal lecturer at Teesside University and former Fleet Street journalist.
Here she discusses her latest research into how the Mail Online built its audience and its impact on journalistic practice.
THE five-year anniversary of the relaunch of Mail Online last summer offered a natural time-frame to examine how it became the world’s most visited newspaper website and the impact of this on journalistic practice.
The staggering 690 per cent increase in audience – from just 18.7m visitors a month in May 2008 to 128m in May 2013 – makes it the industry’s biggest current success story. It’s still growing incredibly quickly, with latest figures showing monthly audience approaching 190m.
But according to digital analytics company Comscore, it isn’t news that’s the pull. Mail Online also holds the top spot for showbusiness, television, fashion and beauty. This content is all celebrity based and as any visitor can see in seconds, it is a prolific part of the site.
The ‘sidebar of shame’, described as ‘journalism crack’ by Mail Online publisher Martin Clarke and the sheer volume of content – averaging between 500 and 600 stories a day – pulls and then keeps audience. Dwell time is over six minutes per unique user, in an industry where two minutes is considered a pretty good show.
Whether celebrity content can be classed as news is a hotly debated topic in academic circles. There is nothing novel in it being used by a news organisation as a way to attract readers. The celebrity interview, for example, has been a sort over commodity by print media for more than 100 years.
However, maximising the potential of celebrity and journalism in the network has enabled Mail Online to use celebrity content with far greater focus than ever before.
The executive summary of Brand42 – the digital agency commissioned with re-launching the site – describes how Web 2:0 enhanced user experience and supported an increase in volumes of content in an attempt to attract “a younger web savvy audience”.
This had a significant impact on the working practices of journalists. Some were ahead of the curve, but are now familiar parts of online news production. Search Engine Optimisation and social media share becoming a key part of working routines, enabled by the creation of more than 200 “highly optimised” templates.
Studying content on the site reveals a number of trends suggesting greater influences on editorial decision-making and production than those around optimising audience.
Increasingly templatised story production, statistical gathering and how journalists now use celebrity performance as news source, means there are few similarities between these working practices of those producing this kind of content for Mail Online and journalists.
Most significantly in terms of my own research, it reframes the significance of the interview. Interviewing is the traditional life blood of journalism. While studies of journalistic work often describe it as ‘non-routine’, interviewing is identified as an important part of every day.
Jeremy Tunstall in his seminal study ‘Journalists at Work’ – found more than half of newsgathering time was spent interviewing people; 25 per cent of the time on face-to-face and 39 per cent on the telephone.
Thinking back to my own time in industry, this feels about right. I remember my first news editor telling me to never to leave an interview until I got ‘every cough and spit’. Later, working at Sunday newspapers, interviews with big buy ups could last several hours. I’d sometimes conduct revisit interviews over subsequent days after a certain line had perked the editor’s interest at conference.
But celebrity content on Mail Online relies very little on direct interaction with sources. Much of it is no more than the repackaging performance in different media spaces. These can include frame-by-frame accounts of the music videos of singers like Katy Perry, a scene from a reality TV show such as The Only Was is Essex or the interaction with fans on social media sites, particularly Twitter.
These are then repackaged, using templates which draw on traditional conventions associated with written journalistic production, such as the inverted pyramid structure and the linguistic devices for direct speech.
Amongst the most popular sources for Mail Online are the stars of a new genre of constructed reality television which emerged around the same time Mail Online launched. The stars of early examples of these shows such as MTV’s The Hills, ITV2’s The Only Way is Essex or E!’s Keeping up with the Kardashians are now examples of networked celebrity as brands and have an incredible ability to sell product. This stems from the fact that selling product seems to be the key purpose of the shows in the first place.
To look at the levels of content about the stars of just one of these shows – The US Kardashian family – shows the vast influence they now have on the Mail Online news agenda. In my five-year study time frame, Mail Online published just under 4,000 stories about the family of which around 30 per cent were directly sourced from their tweets.
Those producing this content don’t directly source their own material through interviews and contacts and think about the best way to use it, but instead aggregate content and place it into a pre-created “highly optimised” template.
This poses a significant question: are the people working on this kind of content for Mail Online journalists?
Mail Online workers are certainly not journalists of a kind that Tunstall would have recognised. Instead they represent a new kind of media worker. We might terms them digital content processors who use the work of others, in this case the performances of celebrity and their interactions with their audience, to generate news lines for them and then repackage it in a way which will optimise audience.
These digital content processors clearly work alongside journalists operating in a more traditional way. Lead stories on Mail Online are usually the ones that have made the paper and many appear to be produced by journalists using sources and interviewing. But there are a number of distinctions can be seen when comparing to the practices of traditional journalists.
They place speed over accuracy, with stories up quickly and then amended or corrected later. This process is recorded under the by-line at the top of each post, which highlights updates. Quantity is valued over quality, with multiple lowbrow and low researched stories produced in a day.
These workers are also not traditional news gatherers, but news aggregators, pulling together online content – in this case the networked performance of the celebrity as brands – to produce stories given the appearance of news. As such they can churn out prolific amounts very cheaply, which keeps pulling audience to the site.
The importance of cost comes into clear focus when you examine the revenue and profit – or lack thereof – of Mail Online itself. Despite attracting huge audiences through their cheaply produced celebrity focused content it still isn’t making any money.
The indications that revenue will follow audience are improving, with parent company Daily Mail and General Trust announcing growth in digital revenue is now offsetting print decline and that the site broke even for the first time in 2012. The site also achieved a 41 per cent increase year-on-year revenue to £41m by September last year. However, this is still only a miniscule part (less than 0.5%) of the £1.8bn generated by the company in 2013.
The quest for advertising revenues has resulted in Mail Online finding another use for this celebrity content. Once it has captured audience, it now tries to sell product directly to them.
A story constructed around a celebrity’s tweet about a new make up line or a paparazzi picture of them going to the gym, often now offers the reader the opportunity to buy the clothes they wear. This has led to Mail Online setting up their own ‘Fashion Store’, built entirely around coverage of celebrity.
It’s advertorial in news’ clothing. Which makes the term digital content processor an even more compelling job descriptor for those producing it.
This research is part of a wider examination into the changing significance of the journalistic interview, particularly to the formulation of celebrity culture. Bethany Usher’s study into the performance of David Bowie in interviews is published in David Bowie: Critical Issues by Routledge later this year.