The inexplicable success of the Daily Mail

As I noted earlier, Andrew Neil gave the Keynote Address to the Society of Editors conference in Glasgow, in the course of which he argued that newspapers that don’t embrace online media are doomed.

During the Q&A at the end, a smart journalist named Donna Leigh asked a simple question. If he was right about the urgency of going online, how did he explain the continuing success of the Daily Mail which, to date, has rather avoided Cyberspace?

It was interesting to see that Brillo Pad was unable to deal with the question — and indeed reverted to type by suggesting that he and the questioner (an attractive woman) might discuss it further, er, later. (I’m sure that was entirely innocent, but it brought to mind the famous observation of one of his subordinates at the Sunday Times that “if you couldn’t f*** it or plug it in then he [Neil] wasn’t interested”.)

Anyway, Roy Greenslade has returned to the issue raised by Ms Leigh. Here’s part of what he has to say:

The undeniable truth is that the Mail, as the questioning Leigh correctly said, has been defying the overall downward trend that’s affected the rest of the market, and that does deserve some explanation. Neil pointed out its professionalism and its attention to editorial detail. I could have added that it has positioned itself perfectly in that bit of the market which has grown in the past 20 years, the working class who have aspired to be middle class (and largely achieved it). It also purveys the values of the middle class, a commonsensical conservatism allied to a pervasive sense that those values are under attack. Unlike the red-tops below it, it has maintained a sense of dignity. Unlike the serious papers, it has embraced populism without appearing to find it somehow distasteful. It has also – and Neil also noted this – benefited from the collapse of its middle-market competition in the shape of the Daily Express.

In other words, the Mail (and its successful Mail on Sunday stablemate) is living on the laurels of long-run demographic change and its clever identification with the people who have lived through it. That change may have reached its zenith or, just possibly, may yet have a little way to go. But the Mail’s success, having inured it to the circulation problems suffered by other papers, meant that it didn’t see the point of investing some much time and energy (and money) in digital platforms. Now, belatedly, it is doing so.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think the delay will necessarily have a negative effect on the Mail’s future. It will surely have learned from the lessons of those papers that have pioneered online journalism. But the really interesting factor is the conservatism of the current Daily Mail audience and the likelihood that fewer young people will be drawn to its values and its agenda.