Ian Burrell: See the picture, buy the boots: the Mail’s new revenue stream

Media Studies

When Lady Gaga thrust her spike-heeled Azzedine Alaia boots out of the window of a New York limousine one day earlier this month she was unknowingly contributing to a quiet revolution that could transform the financial prospects of the news media.

Dave Spencer, a celebrity photographer at Splash News, was among the retinue of paparazzi following Gaga to her vehicle, and his picture of the pop star in black bra and miniskirt inevitably made it to Mail Online.

And then interesting things started to happen. Gaga’s left boot was ringed in pink, an invitation to Mail readers who clicked through to “Step out in skyscraper platform boots”. In accompanying copy, a Mail fashion journalist declared that it was time to “forget feminine pumps and ladylike courts” and, for readers who couldn’t afford the £585 Alaia version, suggested high street and online alternatives for as little as £35, for lace-up ankle boots from Boohoo Zina.

For the past six weeks, Mail Online has been tentatively exploring a new journey in retail which has potentially significant implications for news sites in general. The project is being overseen by Daily Mail and General Trust’s chief executive for e-commerce, Susan Aubrey-Cound, who is the former director of multi-channel development at Marks & Spencer.

This is a process which has been driven by magazines, with the fashion weekly Grazia at the forefront of the trend, with its own shopping app. In the other direction, online fashion retail sites such as net-a-porter.com are increasing their use of written content to drive click-and-buy sales.

The combined effect is a growing expectation among readers of being able to instantly buy the goods they see or read about online – and news sites are getting on the bandwagon. “In the past shoppers would have had to tear out a picture and then try to source the product themselves,” I was told by one industry executive. “Now customers expect to click on an image and find out more detailed information – and get the opportunity to buy.”

For Mail Online the potential is obvious. Not only does the site attract eight million browsers a day, it specialises in photographs of famous and fashionable  women showcasing their threads (often not many threads, in the case of the site’s notorious “sidebar of shame”). An added advantage is that the energy and momentum of a fast-moving news site contributes to the sense that the clothes being worn are the very latest styles.

By comparison, the fashion magazine brands – specialist as they might be – can’t compete for eyeballs, and the retail sites are largely limited to safe commercial images. No one can match Mail Online’s tsunami of pap shots, often featuring glamorous subjects who have been given free designer clothes to promote.

Femail Fashion Finder drives Mail Online readers towards retail offers. Various companies supply similar affiliate link technology – including Skimlinks and Taggstar, which counts the Daily Telegraph and Harper’s Bazaar among its clients.

The former Daily Telegraph editor Will Lewis, before he returned to working for News Corp, was among the pioneers in seeing online retail as a key revenue stream for newspapers. Telegraph.co.uk offers a “buy-love-share” option on the favourite picks of its expert writers on the I-Spied fashion page. Guardian.co.uk runs an extensive online bookshop, while  Independent.co.uk offers click and buy for items in the paper’s popular “50 Best” feature.

But it is Mail Online’s unrivalled supply of paparazzi and celebrity imagery that gives it such an advantage. The first sign of DMGT’s new advance into retail came last month with Femail Fashion Finder’s support for a Dalmatian-print mac from Hobbs, worn by the Duchess of Cambridge when she named the Royal Princess cruise liner. “Knock their spots off in royal style,” suggested the Mail. The mac sold out within minutes.

Where next? Football boots and tennis rackets on the sports pages would be an obvious extension.

One potentially contentious area for the site is how far this retail element encroaches into editorial content. A pap shot of a pop star crossing the street isn’t much more newsworthy than a fashion editor’s “pick” of a must-have handbag. But purchase options on Samantha Cameron’s frock or Theresa May’s kitten heels at the Tory party conference would start to threaten the old “church and state” division between editorial and commercial.

But then those Chinese walls are increasingly mythical, in an era when even BBC journalists are encouraged to think of money-making ideas.

How will this play out? I understand that Mail Online would rather work with the big retailers than take them on. “Put it this way,” said one source. “We won’t be manufacturing any clothes – that would be bonkers.”

Thompson’s ‘outstanding’ legacy comes home to roost

Some years ago, in the wood-panelled boardroom at the BBC’s old Broadcasting House, Mark Thompson briefed journalists on the priorities of the corporation, and insisted that excessive executive pay was a non-story.

He’d seen the research data, he said, and the public wasn’t bothered. I was surprised by his complacency. But soon afterwards I attended a private dinner in Soho where one of Thompson’s top team – questioned about BBC pay by fellow diners – literally laughed away the issue as a Daily Mail concoction. These people really don’t care, I thought. This individual remained at the BBC for barely two years, on a salary of more than £270,000, and left with a pay-off in excess of £300,000, without making any discernable improvements to the corporation.

At least the new director-general, Tony Hall, sees this subject differently. He is demanding an explanation for a £500,000 pay-off to Peter Fincham on his departure as controller of BBC One in 2007, following a serious lapse which led to the Queen being wrongly portrayed as storming out of a photo shoot. Fincham was already a millionaire, and only four months after leaving the BBC, he was named director of television at ITV. 

Thompson, who praised the “integrity” of Fincham’s departure, left the BBC last year wearing laurels. The BBC Trust chairman, Lord Patten, praised him as an “outstanding director-general” and the New York Times made him its chief executive. During eight years in charge, Thompson (who after 2010 felt obliged to make successive cuts to his own £838,000 income) presided over an obscenely overpaid executive. With the Jimmy Savile scandal still not fully resolved and Lord Hall having inherited a useless computer project that wasted £100m, Thompson’s “outstanding” legacy is being re-evaluated.

Bureau knows it must find a new funding model

The philanthropist David Potter and his wife Elaine, a former Sunday Times reporter, have more than done their bit in underwriting the cash-strapped media.

The Potter Foundation funds the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, something they probably regretted after its recent bungling.

The bureau worked on the flawed Lord McAlpine story last year and a misfiring piece on the Help for Heroes charity in May. Both resulted in humbling apologies from Newsnight.

But the Potters have held their nerve and the 10-strong bureau is finding its feet again, with investigations into baby food, the housing sector and the payday loans industry.

Its work in exposing the extent of civilian deaths as a result of US drone attacks provided a scoop for the influential Salon.com site.

“I feel we have demonstrated we are capable of doing these big investigations… and the media feels they can trust what we do,” says the new BIJ chief executive, Christopher Hird, pictured left.

But he can’t keep looking to the Potters to fund the 10-strong journalist team.

“It’s clear that I have to find in the medium term a way of funding the organisation that means that we have a broader base of funding,” he says.

Twitter: @iburrell

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