How ‘Journalism Crack’ Conquered the Internet

Mail Online publisher Martin Clarke wants to get even bigger

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In the cutthroat world of British tabloids, where the explosive Fleet Street editor is a stock character, Martin Clarke still stood out as a particularly fearsome newsroom presence. Even more so when he came to New York in 2011 to expand the Daily Mail’s digital footprint.

During twice-daily editorial meetings on his frequent weeklong visits to the New York office, Mr. Clarke would skim the most recent stories from Mail Online, the Daily Mail’s website, and berate the reporters and editors responsible when he came across a weak windup, a dull headline or an embarrassing typo.

“You’ve got to go and shout at the bastards or they won’t respect you,” Mr. Clarke told a journalist at The Scotsman, which he edited in the late 1990s, according to a 2006 story in The Independent. In the U.K., his staff chafed at his pugnacious demeanor and nicknamed him Jurassic Clarke for his legendary outbursts.

“If you didn’t get yelled at by Martin Clarke, it was a good day,” a former Mail Online staffer told us about the New York newsroom. “He knows what he wants, and he gets it.”

What Mr. Clarke wants is for Mail Online to win in the constantly shifting race to be the world’s top news site. And for the most part, Mr. Clarke does get what he wants.

In January 2012, the Mail Online claimed its supremacy among newspaper websites, having clocked 45.4 million unique visitors the previous month. This past January, that number was 189.5 million. Last year, Mail Online executives announced a roughly $100 million revenue target for 2014, a 50 percent increase over the $68 million digital revenue reported by the Daily Mail & General Trust, the public company that owns the Mail.

“We would like to be one of the most-read English language news sites in the world,” Mr. Clarke, 48, told the New York Observer. “We already are, but we would like to be even bigger.”

MARTIN CLARKE MAIL ONLINE PUBLISHER. PICTURE MURRAY SANDERS DAILY MAIL

Martin Clarke. (Photo by Murray Sanders/Daily Mail)

While the idea of the middlebrow Fleet Street import achieving world domination may have once seemed like a stretch, Mail Online has quickly climbed traffic rankings since Mr. Clarke took over the website eight years ago. Back then, it was mostly footballers’ wives and the royal family. Although the newspaper had been a British tabloid staple in the U.K. since 1896, targeting the burgeoning literate middle class, it was late to the Internet rush. The Mail didn’t launch a website until 2003, almost a decade after other publications began posting content online. For the following three years, the website was an afterthought, barely designed, with a smattering of articles from the paper posted behind a paywall.

In 2006, the paper decided to launch a stand-alone Web operation, overseen by Mr. Clarke. After he was named publisher of Mail Online in 2010, the enterprise crossed the Atlantic, first opening an L.A. bureau to cover entertainment in 2010, followed six months later by a New York operation. The Mail hired some American reporters and shipped in some temporary British trainees, putting them up at a penthouse on Mulberry Street for the duration of their six-month stint.

Traffic rose steeply. In December 2011, Mail Online surpassed The New York Times to become the most read English language news site in the world.

The Daily Mail, long a British guilty pleasure, became a go-to site to find out about the sordid lives of celebrities and regular people with bad taste. Mail Online is The Huffington Post without the left-leaning moral outrage of celebrity bloggers, BuzzFeed without the millennial fetish factor, TMZ without the confines of celebrity. It’s the National Enquirer with a royal baby bump.

The Mail blends celebrity-driven gossip, tales of regular people in bizarre situations, and current events with a humanizing twist. The site floods the zone, posting between 500 and 600 articles and 2,000 pictures per day, relentlessly milking stories even when actual news is scant.

“The Mail is very much the voice of middle England over here and has a very powerful voice. Online, the offering is bite-size and easy reading,” said Jane Bruton, the editor in chief of Britain’s Grazia. “The ‘sidebar of shame’ as it has become known in this country is full of all the gossipy news that people might pretend they’re not interested in but quickly become addicted to.”

Mail Online is a product of its fleet Street origins. In Britain, where tabloid culture is fierce, not engaging in phone hacking meant that the Mail was able to stay above the fray, which says something about where the bar is.

Even as outlets for gossip and weird news have proliferated, Mr. Clarke’s knack for what he calls “journalism crack” is impressive. Former employees who didn’t cherish their time at the Mail conceded that Mr. Clarke, while difficult, is an extremely skilled editor who teaches reporters a lot. He has an uncanny ability to recognize blockbuster stories that will generate enormous traffic. No item is too trashy, no celebrity too insignificant, no oddball human interest story too tawdry to cover—and keep on covering.

“He’s a very tough boss, but he’s a genius at what he does,” a current staffer said.

Mr. Clarke himself put it this way: “How do we know what a good story is? We just know. That’s what we’re paid to know. It’s called news judgment.”

Mail Online conquered America without even dot-com domain name. At the end of last year, the site finally succeeded in purchasing DailyMail.com from the Charleston Daily Mail in West Virginia. It is in the process of migrating its content from the British domain DailyMail.co.uk to the new, more recognizable URL. The Daily Mail wouldn’t disclose the purchase price, but The Guardian estimated the number at more than 1 million pounds.

(The Charleston Daily Mail editor and publisher Brad McElhinny wrote that he plans to use the money to buy state-of-the art cameras and a new computer system for his newsroom and pointed out that, compared to newspapers selling buildings or printing plants, it is relatively small change).

Migrating to a new URL isn’t the only big move on the Mail’s horizon. The New York office is preparing to leave the two floors it occupies in the cramped, nondescript loft where fellow tenants complain about the stomp of wooden heels during overnight shifts. This summer, the operation will relocate to a glassy modern office building at 51 Astor Place.

“By this time next year, I’d like to have twice as many news reporters in New York as we do now,” Mr. Clarke said, adding that he wants more original video and “to become the biggest news website in Australia,” where the Mail recently opened an office and is planning to launch a homepage over the summer.

The new domain name is part of a bid to attract U.S. advertising dollars by increasing brand recognition. Last year, the Mail launched an ad campaign with the tagline “Seriously. Popular” in an attempt to highlight the broad appeal of its newsy and tawdry mix. The first ad featured the two Kims: Kim Kardashian and Kim Jong-un. A second ad, unveiled last month on bus stops and billboards, touted the Mail’s coverage of the two popes: Francis, everyone’s favorite progressive pontiff, and Olivia, the one Kerry Washington plays in Scandal.

“In England, everyone knows the brand,” Mail Online COO Rich Caccappolo said. “Here, brand awareness is quite low, but traffic is great.”

It helps that readers are increasingly brand-agnostic, indiscriminately clicking on links to Viral Nova, The New York Times or an acquaintance’s account of her wedding on Style Me Pretty.

“In the U.S., 95 percent of the people who visit the website have no idea there is a newspaper associated with it,” said Stephen Colvin, a former CEO at Newsweek/The Daily Beast and now an executive in residence at Lerer Ventures, a venture capital fund that invests in media start-ups. “They just see it as a website that has lots of great fresh content and, as a result, is often coming up in whatever content feeds they are using.”

Mr. Clarke sees that as a boon. “Without a print product, you’ve got no legacy, no baggage. You can just be who you want to be,” he said.

Mail Online has a sensibility that that defies every tenet of clean design. Instead of the popular trend toward tiled photos and responsive design, it looks like the Mail has just thrown everything up on the site. Though the home page is carefully curated by its editors, the internal logic makes little sense to the casual visitor.

The home page is a continuous, chaotic scroll with rambling, SEO-heavy headlines and so many photos that the text of a story looks more like a series of captions than an article. Beneath the headline, there are bullet points outlining the most salacious aspects of the story. Last year, Brand42, the London firm that created the look, won an award for its business-driving design—much to the chagrin of those Web designers trying to make a commercial case for the minimalist, intuitive user experience that the graphic art world prefers.

“They deliver a very large volume of daily original content on the topics that most Americans want to know about,” said Mr. Colvin. “Breaking news, whether serious or soft, human interest stories and the pursuits of the rich and famous, with of course a few animal stories thrown in there, all packaged in easily accessible design with short edit and lots of ‘entry points’ to the story.”

Indeed, while scrolling through the site’s endless, SEO-filled headlines for this story, we understood why Mr. Clarke has likened his product to a drug. Readers get sucked in, spending an average of 43 minutes on the site, a stunning statistic in a time when many news sites consider two minutes a success.

Then there is the Mail Online’s so-called “sidebar of shame,” the right rail of stories derived from pictures of celebrities, both hot and forgotten, doing normal things. (Selma Blair buys cookies at the Farmers Market! Minnie Driver wears a floppy hat and sunglasses in the sun! Rebecca Gayheart doesn’t smile! Gwyneth Paltrow does!) But unlike features like Us Weekly’s “Stars, They’re Just Like Us” that normalize these mundane activities, Mail Online hypes them as extraordinary. (“In bloom! Eva Mendes hauls shopping bags in floral jumpsuit and sky-high pumps: no sign of boyfriend of three years, Ryan Gosling.”)

Mail Online

Mail Online’s homepage features human interest stories.

In the main feed are uplifting tales of human triumph. (“THIS is Dad of the Year: Devoted Chinese father carries his disabled son EIGHTEEN MILES to school every day,” proclaims a recent story.) There are countless variations of stories about babies living longer than expected and the bond between pets and humans.

There are also stories where normal people do reprehensible things, like a Florida teen who slit his girlfriend’s mother’s throat or an Arkansas teacher who accidentally showed an X-rated video of herself to her middle-school class. These are the stories that, in the old days, in a local paper, would provoke interest, because they involve a specific community that a reader may identify with. But now, devoid of place, they provide a free-floating fix, written in inflated language designed to trigger maximum emotional output.

The formula works so well that in 2012, the New York Daily News hired Ted Young away from Mail Online to take over the hometown tabloid’s website, which is now practically indistinguishable from the Mail’s. (“We have larger pictures,” Mr. Young said when asked about the similarities between the two sites.)

The imitation has paid off. This past December, the Daily News traffic surged, edging past the Mail in online U.S. views; the News got 38.3 million uniques to the Mail’s 37.6 million. (The Post, fresh off its sleek September website redesign, got 14.4 million uniques, according to ComScore.)

Unlike at the city’s other tabloids, staffers mostly describe blog-like conditions. Instead of shoe-leather reporting and all-night stakeouts, reporters at Mail Online are typically confined to the office, turning around story after story from around the world, using long, search-engine-optimized headlines and attention-grabbing photos to draw in readers. Mail Online reporters don’t often pop up in media circles or covering breaking news, and for the most part, at a time when reporters like to think of themselves as brands, the bylines are seldom the point.

“I’d be hard pressed to name a Daily Mail reporter with a New York name or stateside sources, and that’s the ball game here,” a well-placed New York tabloid insider told us.

But because of the mandate to cover any story, anywhere, Mail Online sees its rivals as everyone from the Huffington Post to Facebook. “Competition online is anyone you could be spending time with instead of Mail Online,” Mr. Clarke said.

To view Mail Online as a third New York tabloid would be missing the point. The News and the New York Post, while increasingly pursuing a national audience, are still fundamentally New York papers, with political reporters fighting to cover City Hall and gossip scribes taking swings over nightlife exclusives.

The reporters at the Mail are tasked with moving a story forward as quickly as possible, churning out content and finding new angles at a pace that would make veteran bloggers break a sweat.

A current staffer called the newsroom vibe “head down, bum up,” explaining that the rigorous pace leaves little time for office chatter.

Nine-hour shifts often turned into 11- or 12-hour ones, and varying day and night duty means that many reporters never find time to sleep. Former reporters said requests for vacation days, which had to be filed many months in advance, would go unconfirmed until days before the hoped-for time off.

But there were perks, like town cars waiting for bleary-eyed reporters after finishing up at 3 a.m. and a staff dinner at the 21 Club’s wine cellar when Mail Online’s traffic beat The New York Times.

“Martin Clarke is very charming when he wants to be,” said a former employee. “But he has an explosive temper, which might be common on Fleet Street, but it’s jarring for Americans.”

As we left Greene Street on a recent Thursday evening, two employees stood outside, smoking. We heard one mention Mr. Clarke’s name while discussing a story idea. The publisher was in London, but his oversized presence reverberated through the New York street.