Mail Online’s audience grab and how it changed journalistic practice


Bethany Usher


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.

Mail Online New York News Room. Source:

Mail Online New York News Room. Source:

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.


Mail Online:  US Advertising Campaign

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.

Follow @bethanyusher.








Blogging assessment: Different student approaches

AS discussed previously, I’m currently working with second year students to develop their journalism through blogging.

Each student has set up an individual publically facing blog where they’ve explored principles of branding, usability, social media optimisation and, of course, producing content.

Some interesting work coming out through the process. Hand in is on December 10th. Can’t wait to see where they’ve got with them.

One student, Leonie Garlick, produced this video as part of her blog My Little Charitees, which  encourages students to do charity.

Another Matthew Brown has really considered branding and consistency with his blog Northern Tone.

Lucy Moody has had fun at a Tea Dance, learned how to make Corn Dollies more than 1000 views since launching her Undiscovered Middlesbrough Blog.

And through Natalie Devonshire’s Preppy Couture, I learned the crucial skill of learning how to polka dot nails. I have a 15-year-old sister who’s going to think I’m really cool this Christmas.

And I really enjoyed her coverage of a Vintage Fair last week:

David Bowie’s silence…and my research…ssshhhh….

DAVID Bowie’s been my idol since I was seven-years-old.

In June 1987 he played at Roker Park – Sunderland AFC’s old ground  – which was at the bottom of the street of small terraced houses, where I lived with my Mam.

David Bowie has released a new single, Where Are We Now?

NEVER GONNA FALL FOR: Modern Love was my first Bowie single

It is one of my clearest memories from childhood. Times weren’t easy, as I’ve discussed before, but suddenly our street was filled with music and I could see bright lights flashing into the sky. It was a moment of magic.

I listened from our front doorstep, as did some of the neighbours. We were so close, but a million miles away from being able to afford the tickets at £15 a pop.

As he sang Modern Love, I asked Mam whether she would get me the record of it. And she did the very next day. It began a love affair – and a collection of Bowie memorabilia – both of which are still going strong some 25 years later.

PRICED OUT: Tickets for the Roker Park gig were a staggering £15 each. My pocket-money was 50p a week.

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SO CLOSE AND YET SO FAR: I listened to the concert from my front door step

And it also led to my very first academic publication, about his recent comeback and why it is shrouded in silence. Who is he now: David Bowie and the authentic self” has been published on Taylor & Francis Online this month.

Silence is a shocking move for Bowie, who always utilised the media as part of the creation of his complex personae. Bowie’s utilisation of interviews is extremely interesting. It was firstly part of the inter-textual creation of personae. Later he attempted to demonstrate forms of authenticity.

My next publication argues the significance of Bowie’s output between 1989 and 1999, exploring how it passes through French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s stages of simulation.This is evidenced by a detailed critical discourse analysis of his Q Magazine interviews during this period. It will be published by Routledge next year in a Bowie special of their Popular Music series.

It was this period when my Bowie fandom was at its peak and it’s the material from then which I anxiously awaited release. The earlier Bowies – such as Ziggy or the Thin White Duke – were later discoveries from me, found through raking through discarded records at car-boot sales, charity shops and later Hot Rats, a record shop which opened in Sunderland in my early teens.

It irks me that not only the media, but sections of Bowie’s fans dismiss this period, despite his own repeated insistence of its importance. He was an artist struggling to rediscover his voice, free from the demands of past personae and the commercial pressures of the music industry.

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LET ME PUT MY ARMS AROUND YOU: Cuddling in to David aged 15

Later, I got to see Bowie in the flesh. Well,  first of all I cuddled his waxwork by jumping over a barrier at Madame Tussaud’s, but after that I saw him gig five times during the 1990s and early 2000s.

Given the hours hunting Bowie jewels, his recent resurgence has been a bit surreal. Suddenly his beautiful face gazed back from the fronts of T-shirts in Top Shop and mugs in Sainsbury’s. But it wasn’t my Bowie really. It was his earlier incarnations which offered soundtracks to another generation’s teenage years.

Bowie was the subject of the quite brilliant V & A Exhibition in the summer and in the final room visitors were surrounded by wall to ceiling footage of past concerts. Including the Glass Spider tour.

I’m not ashamed to say there were tears. And in the exhibition shop, I bought a plaster cast of his face. As I write this he is looking back at me. (A student recently told me this crosses the line into ‘weird stalker fan’. How rude!)

My work on Bowie has been really enjoyable. If you told me as a teenager I’d be researching  him as part of my job, I’d have been thrilled. It also feeds directly into my PhD thesis – Celebrity and the Interview – which I promise to talk about in some more detail soon.

In the meantime, here’s something to enjoy from the man himself.

“QUESTION everything. You’re the eyes and ears of the public.”

While this rule runs through journalism, how do you teach students how to become more inquisitive and to challenge authority?

Some students appear to have been indoctrinated from childhood not to challenge authority and to accept orthodoxy.

Whether it comes to their practice or to their academic reading of the media, teaching them to question what is front of them isn’t always simple. It involves much more than standing in front of a class and telling them what they should do.

The fact you need to involve students to really get them to learn was illustrated no better than when we considered media’s ability to create mass hysteria this week.

In the run up to this year’s Halloween, I got them to listen to Orson Welles’ famous 1937 Halloween broadcast of War of the Worlds (Which you can listen to here)  and asked them to consider why the broadcast caused mass hysteria.  This was given context by a lecture examining the history of sound and vision for journalism.

WELLES’ WAR: Recording the famous Halloween broadcast

I told them  people killed themselves because of the broadcast because they were so convinced it was true and that the opening credits were before the hour so that those who tuned in on the hour thought it was the news.

I also asked them to bring other, more recent, examples of media’s ability to cause mass hysteria, and be ready to discuss what the implications are.

The following seminar opened by showing students video of  Orson Welles himself discussion the reported panic shortly after his broadcast.

Immediately, the students were able to offered reasoned and interesting discussions about why people panicked. They placed it as a new technology which was suddently in people’s everyday lives, and could see why a hybrid of news constructs and fiction could be accepted as fact.

However, what they didn’t do was challange the reporting of the panic itself. That, they accepted as fact. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence from Welles himself, shown in this video recorded some 30 years after the original broadcast.

What none of the students spotted immediately was that in Welles’ later account he, himself, is exaggerating and sensationalising the public’s reaction. They don’t even pause when Welles’ describes how his friend, the actor John Barrymore, realeased his Great Danes into the wild.

BARRYMORE BLUFFS: The king of Gothic tragedy released his Great Danes into the wild?

They didn’t even question it when Orson Welles himself, at the end of the clip, said the point of his work was to make the public challenge what was fed to them through radio and television.

And none of them realised that I, myself, had lied to them, when repeating the myth people had been so terrified that they’d killed themselves.

As one student said, when I told them to question everything, they hadn’t thought they meant me or things told to them by teachers. In fact one of them couldn’t get his head round the fact the panic may have been exaggerated for several minutes.

What I hope now is that it will have a postive impact on their practical journalism work and make them more willing to challenge the authority of official sources. An interesting day’s work!

MY wonderful second year students at Teesside University are currently setting up their blogs as part of their large practical journalism module,

Last week Anthony Vickers from our neighbours the Evening Gazette gave a guest lecture on writing for audience and building community.

His blog Untypical Boro has become the most popular in regional newspapers. And we certainly had fans amongst the student audience, keen to soak up his wisdom (and some secrets from The Riverside’s dressing rooms).

Today the wonderful Chantal Taylor – a Teesside journalism graduate and Multimedia PR officer at We Do Marketing – gave a fantastic lecture on how she turned the blog she did in the same module into a career.

It was incredible to see this amazing consummate professional give advice to students who just four years ago she was among, as her presentation shows.

And it was also a joy to see how her craft has developed as she has turned her passion for vintage fashion into a job, leading developments in the local scene including coming up with the idea for Boro’s new fashion quarter Baker Street.

SHE WEARS IT WELL: Chantal’s blog became her ticket to employment.

As I watched Chantal’s fantastic presentation I felt like a proud Mamma. The young women before me was so talented, but also had an amazing ability to turn great ideas into product.

Her latest blog What Chantal Wore Today has garnered praise from local media and fashion magazines. Go, have a look!

Both these media professionals really put me to shame. Since I had my baby last year my blogs are infrequent, to say the least.

And as I’m teaching blogging, it really just isn’t good enough.

Today I’ve given my students the task of writing their first blog entry in which they will make promises to their audience about what content they will be producing between now and Christmas when they simply hand in a link.

I hope some of them will continue like Chantal, who was the only one in her class to keep up with her blog after assessment, and brokered it into a career by establishing a niche for herself as one of the best fashion bloggers in the Boro.

However, as they have got to produce at least one blog a week, it’s only fair if I do the same. So here it is, in black and white. Laziness, life and infant child aside, my promise to you, Dear Reader, is that I will produce content at least once a week.

And if I don’t please feel free to bombard me with fury…..

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