The good old days: This printing press was built in 1934 for the “Daily Mail”; it was decommissioned in 1999 (image: Science Museum London, via Flickr)
If you want to see the future of online news and entertainment, look at the Mail and see a future neither the Mail nor its enemies want.
If Labour is not in power after the general election, you will hear many leftists blaming the Mail for their defeat. For more than a century, they say, it has pumped out thuggish attacks against every prominent liberal and leftist, and injected its particular venom—a paranoid poison—into wider debate. To its conservative readers, by contrast, the Mail is their shield against a world that would ignore their wishes, take their money and laugh at their convictions.
But it won’t be either a thug or a shield for much longer. As traditional newspaper readers die out, online journalism is the future. MailOnline is the most visited “news” site in the English-speaking world. Go there, however, and you will struggle to find the propaganda that drives the Left wild. There is no section at the top of its front page marked “opinion” or “comment” for readers who want conservative argument. Run your cursor past “News”, “Sport”, “TV & Showbiz”, “Fashion”, “Promos”, “Femail”, and—this must hurt—“Australia”, and finally at the far end of a list of 24 sections you will reach a tag marked “columnists”. Click on it and you find sports columnists, financial columnists and gossip columnists. Buried among them—like mossy tombs in a Victorian graveyard—are the remains of the right-wing pundits whose rages and laments boomed around the old newspaper.
In the past, editors knew little about what people read. Now they know precisely what readers want, and in the case of MailOnline it certainly isn’t the old left-baiting polemicists.
Publishers can measure how many people click on a piece, how long they look at it for, whether they make it past the first paragraphs, and then get bored, or stick with it to the end. They can tell where readers live and—because of their cookies in their browsers—their likely income and interests. (Have they been looking to buy a new car or maternity dress?) They use that knowledge to put customised advertisements in front of them. They can tell within minutes of publication whether an article is being retweeted, read and finished; whether, in short, it was worth publishing at all.
You would need Wilde’s heart of stone not to burst out laughing at the sight of right-wing propagandists reduced to irrelevance by the market forces they have spent their lives supporting. And if they were the only casualties of technological change, I would laugh too.
Unfortunately, there are two simple facts about online publishing which you cannot escape wherever you write or read. The only way for sites that offer free content to make money is from advertising. News sites therefore have to strain to attract hits. But even if they get the readership, and even if grateful advertisers recognise their achievement, web advertising revenue cannot compensate for lost sales and the near-monopoly control of classified advertising—for houses, jobs, cars and just about everything else—that newspapers and magazines enjoyed before it moved online.