The New York Times vs. Mail Online: Who’s Got The Better Business Model?

The championship of the online newspaper world changed hands the other day.
The New York Times (NYSE: NYT) (as measured by comScore (NSDQ: SCOR), currently the most fashionable collector of digital evidence extant) had 44.8m unique visitors in December, while our own dear Daily Mail (LSE: DMGT) had 45.3m. Manhattan’s “grey lady” doesn’t rule the global web world any longer.
A hundred years on, the heirs of Alfred Harmsworth are sticking it to the Yanks – boasting about “reinventing popular journalism for the digital era”.
As with almost any bold claim, there are nuances. Digital statistics are damnably variable according to the rules you count by (the Mail has an even more mind-boggling 84m uniques on the latest ABCe releases). The NYT thinks the Mail counts too many peripheral figures for comfort – and anyway “it is not in our competitive set”, according to a slightly sniffy spokesman. But, given its remarkable rise from zero to hero over a mere five years, there’s reason to concentrate hard one more time on what Mail Online is doing and what its frontier-busting salience portends.
We sometimes talk about print newspapers in Britain as though they were all the same, just parts of the “press”. But the Daily Star and FT, for example, are miles apart in aim, aspiration and resource. (The Star has just 57 journalists). In the online world, such differences are inevitably replicated.
The New York Times, partly concealed behind a paywall that curbs its reader traffic growth, runs a full-service print paper and an even fuller-service website. Its editorial staff is zealously integrated: theoretically, almost everyone does everything. Its internet presence is a natural extension of its newsprint history. Though it does not yet quite talk the talk of “digital first” – looking forward, like the Journal Register group in the US or the Guardian here in Britain, to the days when dead trees are left to lie and paperless news organisations bestride the net – it is, nevertheless, envisaging a certain sort of future: one where everything changes, everything is up for grabs.
But keep looking towards that future, because operating so ambitiously online is a cash drain, not a cash cow, for the moment. The New York Times, pushing its cover price up to $2.50 a copy, bidding a sudden farewell to its CEO and grinding through more redundancy toils, hasn’t exactly found sunlit uplands or revenue models as yet.
Britain’s new world champion, by contrast, sees things in another light. It rejects any form of print and online integration. It runs its online operation under an editor – Martin Clarke – who’s free to produce a digital version that, by the end of a working day, bears almost no similarity to what Paul Dacre ordains for print. “A good story’s a good story – particularly a good human story”, Clarke tells his growing American audience. But he doesn’t try to break the bank when he tells it.
The mothership Mail Online office in Kensington has only 25 seats and terminals. In New York, there are 20 staff people, nine in Los Angeles (most of them buying celebrity pictures). You’re not talking huge wage bills, or (in NYT mode) striving to slim 1,250 journalists down to 1,000. Mail numbers keep early losses under control and let profits flow more easily; the Huffington Post, remember, took off with 50 staff. Mail Online, even before its current American surge, made £15m profit last year.
Yet keep taking that old Daily Star/FT medicine: keep thinking differences, some of them profound. Dacre’s Daily Mail, with 4.5 million UK readers every weekday morning, isn’t anticipating giving up the print ghost any decade soon. On the contrary, like its closest rival, the Telegraph, which also claims to make profits online, it reckons on staying in print business for as far as a managerial eye can see. In one sense, it’s a leader of the digital pack. In another sense, it is hanging back, keeping options open.
That’s not where the New York Times stands. Nor is it yet quite “digital first”, which, in Journal Register terms, means print somewhere towards the disappearing rear.
But then those cavernous old differences keep opening again. Maybe this month’s world champion will be history in five years’ time as the net’s thirst for celebrity photos is slaked. Maybe – as pondered in a recent Communication Management group survey – the decline in print sales will plateau out for a while. Maybe the Mail model and the NYT model can both win through in the end. Maybe the Mail’s celebs can’t draw the ads. Maybe missionary zeal and cautious calculation can exist side by side.
Keep saying “maybe” time and again. And remember, amid all this “we are the greatest” stuff, to keep sucking your thumb while you do.

This article originally appeared in TheObserver (Guardian).