Mail Online last month overtook The Huffington Post to become the second most popular newspaper website in the world. According to Comscore, which measures digital traffic, it recorded nearly 40 million so-called "unique visitors". The New York Times website was in first position with nearly 62 million unique visitors. Guardian co.uk was a very creditable fifth with nearly 31 million.
Some observers think Mail Online may overhaul NYTimes.com this year to become the world's most popular website. Its rate of growth has been phenomenal. Moreover, the recent decision of NYTimes.com to charge people who read more than 20 articles a month is bound to reduce its overall traffic. The favourite paper of Middle Britain could be on track to become the leading online newspaper in the world. I should remind readers that I write a column for the Daily Mail which also appears on Mail Online.
The Mail group was slow to enter the digital race. Whether deliberately or not, it did what no other British newspaper had done – produce an online version strikingly different in spirit to the newsprint one. Mail Online is much racier than the Mail. It carries prominent stories about showbiz types, many of whom are young women wearing rather few clothes. Whereas the Mail itself can be scathing about celebrities, and is nervous about displaying too much naked female flesh, Mail Online is both more relaxed and less censorious about models and starlets in a state of partial undress.
Most of the content is still the same but there is a difference of emphasis and presentation. It comes across as more populist and less strident than its parent, which appears to suit an online audience. Rather suprisingly, a third of regular Mail readers frequently look at Mail Online, though this proportion may fall as the two versions edge further apart. Mail Online in the United States already has additional American content for American readers, who comprise about a third of the total. It has opened offices in Los Angeles and New York, and doubtless others will follow in other English speaking countries.
Because of its investment, Mail Online is not yet making a profit but it could be making serious money within a few years – a notion which would have seemed far-fetched only 18 months ago. The huge size of its ever-increasing audience is becoming attractive to advertisers. Mail Online tailors its advertising to regular users whose "cookies" it recognises from visits to other Mail group websites. Users are broken down into more than 700 separate categories, and every regular visitor receives different, targeted advertising.
I realise, of course, that some people may feel less enthusiastic about Mail Online's global success than I am likely to. But perhaps anyone who wants newspapers to survive and thrive should draw comfort from the apparent debunking of what was until recently received wisdom. It turns out that online newspapers which don't charge can be profitable, and their success need not be at the expense of print.
Guardian.co.uk also deserves plaudits for being the world's fifth most popular online newspaper. It too has a strong presence in the United States. Its problem is that The Guardian is losing a great deal of money, and its circulation has been slipping, so that Guardian.co.uk's editorial prowess is somewhat overshadowed by the financial difficulties of the mother ship.
The success of Mail Online (which must in large measure be attributed to its saturnine publisher, Martin Clarke) makes me more optimistic about the commercial prospects of digital newspapers. It also makes me wonder about the policy of News International to charge not only for the online Times and Sunday Times but also for the mass-circulation News of the World. And, finally, it leads me to ask whether the policy of the Mail group to produce significantly differentonline and print versions could not be imitated by other publishers who have still not fully worked out their online strategies.
Two fat columnists; one endless rivalry
Fans of Simon Heffer will have been disappointed not to see the ginger-haired sage declaiming from his usual perch in The Daily Telegraph last Wednesday. A few may have been perplexed that Bruce Anderson, late of this parish, should have been chosen as his stand-in.
The animosity between these two gentlemen knows few bounds. It is partly rooted in atavistic personal issues, and partly ideological. To the outside world Mr Heffer and Mr Anderson may appear indistinguishable as two well-padded Tories of a similar age not obviously racked by self-doubt.
In fact, Mr Anderson, once a student leftist, has a Leninist devotion to his party which normally precludes criticism of its leader, whereas since he was a young lad Mr Heffer has enjoyed throwing rancid vegetables at Tory leaders he does not like, among whom David Cameron stands in pole position.
Last year Mr Heffer was instrumental in killing off a column which Mr Anderson had been commissioned to write for the Telegraph. It was therefore an act of barely credible lèse majesté to invite his age-old bête noire to stand in for him. Does the decision carry a secret message that Mr Heffer's word is not feared in Telegraph circles as once it was?
Another interesting aspect is that Mr Anderson broke the habit of a lifetime and actually chided Mr Cameron who, let it not be forgotten, he was the first columnist to champion.
The cynicism of the Scottish 'Sun'
The decision of the Scottish edition of The Sun to back Alex Salmond and the Scottish Nationalist Party before the elections on 5 May seems cynical. The Sun pretends to be a passionately unionist newspaper. The SNP's most fundamental belief is independence for Scotland. How can The Sun embrace a party whose main policy it so vehemently opposes?
The answer is that it could not bring itself to support Labour north of the border after having rejected Gordon Brown on the national stage. It judges the Tories and Lib Dems in Scotland too feeble to be worth backing. Wouldn't the honourable course have been to endorse no one?