Sign number 28,542 of the approaching apocalypse: Last week, ComScore.com, an online tracking service, reported that the rapacious middlebrow British tabloid the Daily Mail has quietly unseated The New York Times as the most-read online newspaper in the world. The Mail Online hit 45.3 million users in December, beating out the Times's respectable but flagging 44.8 million – no small feat for an online publication that launched just over three years ago.
In contrast to the vast majority of digital newspapers, the Mail website is also raking in the cash, last year turning a reported $24-million in profit, with no paywall, no teams of crack Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, no shame whatsoever in slapping Kim Kardashian's Twitpics all over its home page.
Even in the middle of the phone-hacking scandal plaguing rival Rupert Murdoch's News International, the Mail is enjoying a bona-fide cultural moment. Partly by virtue of its brand credibility (the Mail sells a staggering 4.5 million print copies a day), its Web arm now claims the title of world's cleanest dirt disher, attracting scads of readers from London to Aberdeen and from L.A. to Sydney.
The genius of Mail Online is that it has figured out exactly how to package stupid content for smart people. And surprise, surprise – we can't get enough of it.
Unlike the thoughtful, stalwart New York Times, which prides itself on maintaining its Grey Lady brand across platforms, the splashy, celebrity-obsessed Mail Online looks and feels almost nothing like its arch-conservative, domestically focused print incarnation.
Put together by a transatlantic staff of just over 50 employees, the site reads haphazardly, like a palimpsest of publications transposed crazily on top of one another. There's nothing clear or pretty about it, and yet the effect is as addictive as a nicotine-soaked, deep-fried hit of crack. A sensual bombardment of images and information, from hard news to celebrity cellulite, begs to be clicked on one bottomless scroll bar that descends all the way down to hell.
The Mail Online has essentially nailed the guilty pleasure. It's the Internet's best source of uncut, class-A celebrity gossip that's neither overtly camp (like, say, PerezHilton.com), aggressively shouty (TMZ) nor cringingly snide (Gawker). As providers of dross go, it's the lesser evil for bored professionals hoping to kill 15 minutes without needing a soul-cleansing shower afterward.
Its deeper genius is in setting a tone through eclectic – some might say morally contradictory – content. You might go to the site to read about Gordon Ramsay's rancid feud with his in-laws, but you end up reading about Kate and Will's new puppy and a good Samaritan who rugby-tackled a little old lady's mugger. You might even click on the story about the British foreign secretary's visit to war-torn Somalia. (But let's face it, probably not.)
This tension in content between high and low, smart and silly, makes even the most salacious Mail stories feel sharable. And in this great age of social networking, sharability is all: If a Tumblr video of a kitten licking an ice-cream cone is posted on YouTube, but there's no one there to tweet it, does it really exist?
The Mail Online understands this. First, online readers find the lurid/funny/bizarre item. Then, they feel vaguely ashamed for enjoying it. Then, they share it so that their so-called friends and followers can waste their time in turn.
When the folks at The New York Times heard they'd been dethroned by a tatty tabloid run by a skeleton crew, they were not amused. Spokesperson Eileen Murphy dismissed the ComScore figures, saying the Mail unfairly counted traffic to its personal-finance site, and insisting the Times remains "the No. 1 individual newspaper site in the world." Speaking to BuzzFeed, she sounded pretty defensive, sniffing, "It almost doesn't need to be said, but the Daily Mail is not in our competitive set."
I'm not so sure. In the intellectually promiscuous digital landscape, distinctions between high- and lowbrow media look blurrier by the day. Discerning readers want to be edified, of course, but they also want to be entertained. If they can get that midday serotonin hit from a site that manages (or even just appears) to do both, why not?
Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go back online to share the latest news on Gordon Ramsay, and his long-awaited legal truce with his wife's philandering dad.