Traditional newspapers have only really started to engage with the online world in the past decade or so, and it’s been interesting to see how they’ve gone about it. I remember a time when a newspaper’s website was simply an onscreen version of the paper you’d buy at the newsagents’, but content has changed gradually. Embedded video, comments, podcasts, stuff you wouldn’t find in the physical paper. One of the most recent innovations has been The Times’s flirtation with a paywall, and I suspect the other papers are watching that closely to see how it shakes out.
Paywalls notwithstanding, it’s hard to monetise visits to a newspaper website. Sure, there are ads and special offers and stuff, but actual unique hits don’t have any value at all.
Except they do.
The title of Most Popular Newspaper Website is worth having, because it attracts advertisers, and as far as I understand it this title is decided by the number of unique page hits a newspaper site gets. From what I can see, there’s a kind of hit arms race going on, with papers vying to get people to look at their pages, and it breaks my heart to say this but The Mail Online is the undisputed king at this kind of thing.
It’s no great secret that Twitter hates The Mail, and with good reason; The Mail Online’s site is a disgraceful mixture of skimpily-clad celebrities, right-wing trollery and barking mad comment. Someone at the Mail understands this and the paper is an expert at exploiting it. Hardly a day goes by without some bloody stupid Mail Online article raising a storm of retweets – more often than not with a link attached. Nobody adds a link in order to make the Mail more popular – it’s usually so others can read the article and get pissed off too – but every time someone clicks on it, it’s a unique hit and Paul Dacre smiles.
A little while ago the MO introduced a new columnist, Samantha Brick, whose first piece was about how she was so beautiful that other women were jealous of their husbands talking to her. Storm of Twitter outrage, storm of RTs. Storm of hits. A win for the MO.
Today an article has come out on the back of the Olympic opening ceremony, having a go at the inclusion of the NHS and the multiculturalism of the event. This turned up a few hours after the Tory MP Aidan Burley criticised just those things on Twitter and received a sound slapping, and it can’t be a coincidence. To my mind, someone at the MO saw the reaction to Burley’s comments, sensed that they would raise a reaction, and got someone to knock off a piece along those lines but maybe a bit more rabid. Cue Twitter outrage, cue storm of RTs. Storm of hits. A win for the MO.
This would be depressing enough, but I’ve noticed what may be signs that other papers are starting to use the same tactic. The Guardian posted a very odd and rather insulting article following the Aurora shootings in which the writer castigated liberals for demanding gun control. The Guardian would say that their paper is a broad church and comment is free and all that, but it sat oddly with their supposedly liberal agenda and seemed almost calculated to alienate their readership, until you look at it in the light of trollery. The link to it did the rounds of Twitter – not perhaps with the same storm-front intensity as a Mail Online article, but still robustly enough. Links equal unique hits equals site popularity.
The newspaper industry is very old, and these are still relatively early days in its engagement with the internet. The whole nature of journalism is trying to find a paradigm which will work. At the moment, it seems that The Mail is winning, and to a greater or lesser extent it seems to me that we’re helping. Better just to ignore it.