Sidebar of blame: why we are addicted to Mail Online

Time for today’s Paris Hilton story. Alex Muller

The first annual “Don’t Read the Daily Mail” day was held recently, organised by @DMReporter, a twitter feed that critiques the paper every day. The organisers announced the day of action because, even though they were committed to exposing the “hypocrisies and bigotries” of the paper, all the tweeting was really doing was ensuring that the Daily Mail website got more hits and therefore more advertising revenue.

By complete coincidence, this week also saw the Mail’s owners, DMGT Media, announce a huge 45% leap in online ad income over the last year for its newspaper websites, including Mail Online.

There is no doubting the site’s popularity. Last year, it overtook the New York Times as the web’s most visited newspaper, with this July seeing 134m unique visitors.

And it keeps getting bigger, drawn in by news stories including the birth of the royal baby and assorted celebrity deaths.

So why are people flocking to the online edition of a newspaper described as evil by many (see journalist Martin Robbins’s presentation on the subject below) and as dangerous by many more?

Why the Daily Mail is evil.

We must face the facts – it is evidently true that many people want to see how super slim Jennifer Lopez is looking. They want to see Kanye West out shopping and they want to see the “shocking face of a binge drinking young mother” Even the Mail Online’s publisher has said that “people are addicted to it. It’s like journalism crack.”

This may be overstating the matter, but not by much if reader comments are anything to go by. One response to a vitriolic demolition of the Mail said in mock horror,

I read DM every day and can quite frankly say that I’m sadly addicted! I should really get a hobby, eh!!! There is endless reading about interesting and useless stuff. There is also the racist/classist/sexist/homophobic/nationalistic stuff that is clearly designed to generate the most vitriolic of reader comments! It does make you feel sad about humanity though. But I can’t stop reading…please help!

Hyperbole of course, but the notion of “endless interesting and useless stuff” is significant. The Mail Online website is constantly changing, offering new stories and pictures at a phenomenal rate. It reacts to reader behaviour. As Daniel Stacey points out:

The introduction of analytic tools like Chartbeat now allow web editors to view predictive histograms for traffic flows to news articles. Within 20 minutes an editor can tell whether an article is a hit or a flop, and move the article up or down the page. He or she can also see, given regressive analysis of previous traffic trends, when audience will get bored with the article, and consequently when the news tidbit should be banished to the lower reaches of the front page.

It is important to remember that it is all put together with skill and purpose. Design Week magazine devoted an editorial to praising Mail Online’s functionality, pointing out that, “The wordy headlines and lengthy homepage scrolling are there for a reason – they helped shoot Mail Online up the search-engine rankings.”

There is clearly a public appetite for celebrity gossip, hysterical commentary, gratuitously violent videos, carefully orchestrated outrage and endless BBC bashing. The fast-changing design and editorial monitoring means that the audience can inject the same drug with a different needle many times a day.

And what cannot be denied is that research indicates online news consumers are put off by so called “hard news” stories.

A study by academics at the University of Bristol’s Intelligent Systems Laboratory analysed the choices made by readers of online news and found, according to lead researcher Professor Nello Cristianini:

People are put off by public affairs and attracted by entertainment, crime, and other non-public affairs topics.

Those who monitor press coverage have become used to the Mail’s patterns of presentation and its cynical exploitation. They abhor its everyday racism, casual sexism and shameless hypocrisy. Many ordinary, decent people despise the Daily Mail. The problem is that millions of ordinary, decent people read it, too.