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The good old days: This printing press was built in 1934 for the “Daily Mail”; it was decommissioned in 1999 (image: Science Museum London, via Flickr)

If you want to see the future of online news and entertainment, look at the Mail and see a future neither the Mail nor its enemies want.

If Labour is not in power after the general election, you will hear many leftists blaming the Mail for their defeat. For more than a century, they say, it has pumped out thuggish attacks against every prominent liberal and leftist, and injected its particular venom—a paranoid poison—into wider debate. To its conservative readers, by contrast, the Mail is their shield against a world that would ignore their wishes, take their money and laugh at their convictions.

But it won’t be either a thug or a shield for much longer. As traditional newspaper readers die out, online journalism is the future. MailOnline is the most visited “news” site in the English-speaking world. Go there, however, and you will struggle to find the propaganda that drives the Left wild. There is no section at the top of its front page marked “opinion” or “comment” for readers who want conservative argument. Run your cursor past “News”, “Sport”, “TV & Showbiz”, “Fashion”, “Promos”, “Femail”, and—this must hurt—“Australia”, and finally at the far end of a list of 24 sections you will reach a tag marked “columnists”. Click on it and you find sports columnists, financial columnists and gossip columnists. Buried among them—like mossy tombs in a Victorian graveyard—are the remains of the right-wing pundits whose rages and laments boomed around the old newspaper.

In the past, editors knew little about what people read. Now they know precisely what readers want, and in the case of MailOnline it certainly isn’t the old left-baiting polemicists.

Publishers can measure how many people click on a piece, how long they look at it for, whether they make it past the first paragraphs, and then get bored, or stick with it to the end. They can tell where readers live and—because of their cookies in their browsers—their likely income and interests. (Have they been looking to buy a new car or maternity dress?) They use that knowledge to put customised advertisements in front of them. They can tell within minutes of publication whether an article is being retweeted, read and finished; whether, in short, it was worth publishing at all.

You would need Wilde’s heart of stone not to burst out laughing at the sight of right-wing propagandists reduced to irrelevance by the market forces they have spent their lives supporting. And if they were the only casualties of technological change, I would laugh too.

Unfortunately, there are two simple facts about online publishing which you cannot escape wherever you write or read. The only way for sites that offer free content to make money is from advertising. News sites therefore have to strain to attract hits. But even if they get the readership, and even if grateful advertisers recognise their achievement, web advertising revenue cannot compensate for lost sales and the near-monopoly control of classified advertising—for houses, jobs, cars and just about everything else—that newspapers and magazines enjoyed before it moved online.

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Malcolm Knott
April 5th, 2015
3:04 PM
Judging by the content of the Mail on Line most of its (female?) readers just want to look at pictures of celebrities in 'bikini shoots' - even in the middle of winter.

Trumpeter Lanfried
April 5th, 2015
12:04 PM
The success of the Mail on Line suggests that what most readers (or at least most women) want to look at is celebrities in 'bikini photoshoots.'

terence patrick hewett
April 2nd, 2015
12:04 PM
The next time anybody reads a newspaper article examine it for: imported tweets, quotes and graphics. All these are indicators that the piece was written using Computer-Generated-Journalism Software. The figures are compelling: an article can be generated in about 10 seconds at a cost of about £12, using intern level staff, well down the pay grades. The leader in the field, the company Narrative Science estimates that 90% of news will be computer-generated in 15 years. Algorithms can pull together sports analysis, history, photographs and graphics: then compose a sports story. Or election information, financial reports, market research and local news. Much of the output of the major newspapers is now computer-generated from information much of which amusingly is itself computer-generated. Journalism is one of the first categories that is being lost to Artificial Intelligence encouraged by advances in natural language generation and fast data processing of structured data. All the major newspapers in this country now use this type of software especially in financial and sports reporting and increasingly in political reporting. Other companies that admit to using it are: New York Times, Big Ten Network (BTN), Fox Networks, IQT, Forbes, Dominion Dealer Solutions, Credit Suisse, Nuveen Investments, Publicis Groupe, Mastercard Worldwide, Deloitte, American Century Investments, CIA, USAA.

HzleMuggins
March 28th, 2015
10:03 AM
Usual bias from Nick Cohen. Left wing writers always miss the fact that the Mail IS read by larger numbers of people precisely because it reflects the values of more people in this country - values that the left try to brand as racist (calling people "racist" is becoming the main national pastime - forget football). . The fact that the MailOnline is becoming a magazine in the search for clicks is an separate, but interesting phenomenon. Nevertheless I'm sure Cohen's worries about journalistic quality are spot on, and not just because of click bait. Twitter and Facebook have helped turn everyone into morons. Though there will be an upside in that more debate probably means more good debate, - you just won't be able to fund it for all the mountain of rubbish swilling about.

Mockingbird Fleming
March 27th, 2015
11:03 AM
A good article. This seems to be the natural result of teaching stupid people how to read.

Pat Yale
March 26th, 2015
4:03 PM
This particularly resonates with me as I have long thought that since everything went online I was getting less rather than better informed. With the old newspapers I would spread them out and read almost everything, whether I thought it would be interesting or not. Online, however, I usually click on the headings that look interesting and so miss many stories I would once have read. This is as true of how I read The Guardian online as any the sources cited above.

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