It’s been an uncomfortably rocky week for London’s last surviving Press Lord, who normally keeps a very low profile.
First, he was shame-named by Meghan Markle in her statement following her triumph in court against his London tabloid: “Today, the courts ruled in my favor—again—cementing that the Mail on Sunday, owned by Lord Jonathan Rothermere, has broken the law.” Then, on Friday, he lost the man who, in little more than a decade, built MailOnline, a digital business now valued at more than twice as much as his 125-year-old newspaper empire.
For at least half of the last century most of Britain’s national newspapers were owned or run by families headed by Lords. To be more precise, their Lordships Astor, Beaverbrook, Camrose, Kemsley, Rothermere and Thomson. Now Rothermere is the only one left standing. His dynasty is the oldest, based on the Daily Mail, founded in 1896.
According to the conventional wisdom about the merciless newspaper game, particularly as practiced in London, Rothermere’s business should have been roadkill long ago.
So why didn’t that happen?
The current Lord Rothermere is 53 years old. For a figure who could, if he chose, wield a lot of political clout, he makes very little noise.
The family has never supplied inspiration for a Succession kind of dynastic soap opera, as the Murdochs have. And yet last year the Daily Mail overtook Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun as the UK’s top-selling paper (this year Murdoch had to write down the value of the daily and Sunday editions of The Sun to zero because of the costs of settling phone hacking cases). Over the last five years the company Rothermere heads, the Daily Mail and General Trust, has been quietly transforming itself. He intends soon to return it to being a family business, by canceling its stock market listing and become a private limited company.
But most of the credit for the company’s survival has to go to a title that has never been in print, MailOnline, and the blowhard figure who created it, Martin Clarke, whose exit on Friday surprised the whole media world, and remains puzzling.
MailOnline was launched by Clarke in London 2007, but that was before the iPhone, the iPad and social media together led to a revolution in the way advertising was sold. The turning point came in 2011, when the site established a larger editorial base in Manhattan’s SoHo district, just as so-called programmatic advertising technology was being pioneered by BuzzFeed and Facebook. It was smart timing, because the old Madison Avenue ad agency culture was looking as dated as the magazine and newspaper publishing culture that it traded with. For the first time, using digital platforms, advertisers could measure the effectiveness of their ads directly based on the number of clicks they generated. It was the end of the long and delirious Mad Men party: algorithms bought and sold advertising without needing a three-martini lunch to clinch a contract.
At MailOnline, Clarke grasped the significance of this as a path to making the business profitable. Of course, this meant abandoning the idea that the worth of a story lay in its news value. Sometimes, a dozen different versions of the same story (or ad) were posted to see which combination of words, headline and pictures drew the most clicks and, therefore, captured an audience in line with what advertisers wanted.
It was a ruthless descent to a new dark art that was anathema to legacy newsmen—but not to Clarke. He had long shown his chops as a print editor with a ruthlessly competitive style but now transformed himself into a so-called “digital native,” talking the talk and walking the walk. He designed a new kind of hyper-tabloid that reduced news to a thread of staccato bursts of text sprinkled with celebrity eye candy—as well as unrelenting coverage of the greatest of all soap operas, the travails of the House of Windsor. (There were complaints that under the banner of “aggregation” the site was freely plagiarizing other journalists’ work, even putting invented bylines on the stories.)
Soon, MailOnline became a phenomenal mother lode for Rothermere. It now claims 24.9 million unique visitors a month (BuzzFeed claims 38 million). In the last 12 months its revenue has grown by 14 percent while the company’s print advertising revenue fell by 15 percent and the circulation of the papers fell by 6 percent. In May, JP Morgan Chase valued MailOnline at almost $730 million—more than twice the value of all Rothermere’s print titles.
But Clarke was only one part of the New York revolution. The other was the American CEO of MailOnline, Richard Caccappolo. Before Clarke’s departure, Caccappolo was appointed CEO of the London-based Daily Mail Media Group, and at that moment it seemed that the leadership of the company’s journalistic development had passed jointly to him and Clarke. As cultural shocks go, this looked like the biggest in the London newspaper world since Murdoch arrived in 1968 looking for a newspaper to buy.
The first result of the change was a shake-up in the Daily Mail’s newsroom. The editor of the Daily Mail, Geordie Greig, departed after only three years in the job—apparently much to his surprise and displeasure. The editor of the Mail on Sunday, Ted Verity, was given command of the two titles. Superficially it looked like a sensible rationalization: the two papers had feuded needlessly with each other. In fact, it was but a surface ripple covering a far more consequential review of the business.
The Americanization of the business did not come as a surprise to one of the shrewdest followers of UK media, Claire Enders of Enders Analysis: “It started a generation ago,” she told me. She believes that the prime mover of Rothermere’s strategy is the man who has been the company’s CEO since 2016, Paul Zwillenberg. Rothermere first met Zwillenberg at Duke University, where they were both students in the 1980s.
Zwillenberg has, like his boss, kept under the radar. When he left Duke he was something of a techy nerd with a strong interest in college basketball, having covered it for the college newspaper. The two things—tech and sports—combined into what for him was something of a Damascene revelation. In 1996, when he suddenly appeared in London to launch a digital operation for Rothermere, he told the British media weekly Campaign that his favorite website was GoDuke.com: “Duke has one of the best teams in the U.S. and this web site keeps me on top of everything…what I like best is when you combine live audio with the live scoring services from the likes of ESPN and CBS SportsLine.”
Having established early digital platforms for Rothermere, Zwillenberg left London in 2000 to join the Boston Consulting Group, whose analysts are highly rated company doctors, where he was known for his belief that the future of much print media was, basically, go digital or die. And, while in America, he remained a strategic voice in Rothermere’s ear as his prediction hit newspapers with lethal results, stripping them of one of their main revenue sources, advertising.
The new strategy has brought to a head a problem that was becoming more and more acute. The tabloid idiom of MailOnline is clearly not compatible with the middlebrow journalism of the London papers. In fact, many in the London newsroom look upon Clarke’s creation as a satanic fetus implanted in the saintly corpus of traditional journalism. That’s not to say that the Daily Mail newsroom has ever been an oasis of dignity and professional composure. From 1992 to 2018 it was under the rule of Paul Dacre, an editor who confused short-fused belligerence with leadership. He shamelessly embodied every trait of the unreconstructed newsroom tyrant, spitting out the “c-word” in rebuke of both genders, day and night. (According to MailOnline insiders, Clarke, who revered Dacre, shared his management style.)
Nonetheless, like the editors who successfully built Murdoch’s tabloids, Dacre created a voice in print that was an extension of himself and the paper found its moment, with the surge of raw Little England nativism that, against all expectations, produced the victory for Brexit. At the same time, following the industry trend, his paper’s circulation fell from more than 2 million copies a day in 2010 to 960,000 today. The newspaper’s readership is aging, while the website’s audience is younger and wealthier.
Analysts agree that the decline in print is irreversible. In responding to it, Rothermere and Zwillenberg have to figure out how to harmonize under one roof two such divergent tones in journalism as MailOnline and the Daily Mail. There is also the “church and state” issue. Print newsrooms are traditionally impervious to advertising pressures and strong editors are supposed to uphold this principle. But MailOnline freely copulates with advertisers—that’s part of its business model. Clarke embodied the roles of both editor and publisher in a way that few other print-born journalists have managed. The difficulty of this ethical and cultural divide in the newsrooms is expressed in their content selection: although MailOnline pays for access to all the print papers’ content, 90 percent of what it publishes is self-generated.
Media analyst Peter Kreisky, chairman of the Kreisky Media Consultancy, told me: “The price of nurturing these clashing cultures will be high. Any attempt to fully integrate them will dilute their individual energy and focus. They appeal to very different audiences. MailOnline competes in the 24/7 minute-by-minute news as click-bait space with Facebook, BuzzFeed and Google, a tough game, while it’s far from clear how traditional Daily Mail journalism can sustain a digital base of sufficient scale. There is already brand confusion, between the digital and print versions. I can see, though, that taking the company private frees of them of the short-termism of quarterly earnings reporting and gives them the time to re-position the declining newspaper business—that’s important because the Daily Mail association underlies the credibility of the branding, for both print and the digital sites.”
The Rothermere dynasty has its roots in late Victorian London, amid the tangle of print shops and publishers around Fleet Street, the eponymous locus of national journalism. Public literacy was exploding, and with it came a huge appetite for self-improving knowledge. Two brothers, Alfred and Harold Harmsworth, published cheap weeklies that delivered general knowledge and gossip in bite-sized portions. Tipped off that one of London’s nine evening newspapers was for sale, the Harmsworths decided to make the leap into news and bought the paper, the Evening News and Post, at a bargain price. They set about injecting it with their own flair for snappy copy and headlines—including an early version of news aggregation by converting ticker-tape news agency copy to what they headlined as “News Flashes Brought by the Electric Wire from All Quarters of the Compass.”
Two years later, in 1896, the brothers launched a morning paper, the Daily Mail. Harold, the Scrooge of the business, thought news too costly a product and remained aloof during the run-up to the launch, expecting it to flop. Alfred had a deeper mind. He understood that news was knowledge and said he wanted a “writers’ paper” with its own foreign correspondents. At launch the paper had an editorial staff of just 14. Alfred predicted a first day sale of 100,000. In fact, it sold 397,215 copies. “We’ve struck a gold-mine” exulted Alfred. His editorial formula shrewdly fed the needs of the aspirational Victorian middle class or, as Alfred said in a promotion, “clerks or other gentlemen in regular employment.” His editors were told that the Daily Mail should embrace “conciseness and compactness” to satisfy “busy men.” This became an enduring and extremely profitable template that few other London papers matched.
In 1905, Alfred Harmsworth was anointed with the title of Lord Northcliffe, becoming the prototypical British newspaper baron, as politicians, rattled by the way the new mass market dailies swayed public opinion, handed out peerages to their owners, hoping to keep them onside. Harold subsequently became the first Lord Rothermere.
But Northcliffe was not easy for any government to silence. He had acquired a Citizen Kane level of egomania, convinced of his own rightness as a world authority. After World War I he traveled around Europe lecturing politicians on how to build a new world order. The last months of his life were bizarre. Falling ill in the early summer of 1922, he drafted a will in which he said he was in good mental health but suffering “from one dangerous disease, Indian jungle fever and another unknown to any doctors in Great Britain, poisoning by ice cream supplied on the Belgian frontier.” To provide him with better air he was moved to a hut on the roof of a neighbor’s Mayfair mansion. He died, aged 57, on August 14. There were rumors that he died as a result of syphilis, but it was later established that he suffered from a heart disease, endocarditis.
The title of Lord Northcliffe died with him and Rothermere, always the hard-nosed bean-counter, took over the business looking every inch what he was, a self-made plutocrat and political reactionary with his own wealth preservation always a priority. He also had a short attention span and capricious political ideas that the Daily Mail editors had to follow. Nonetheless, by 1928 the Daily Mail was selling close to 2 million copies a day, with Lord Beaverbrook, another baron with a political agenda (in his case a more consistent one, promoting the British Empire as a saintly enterprise) building up the Daily Express as a serious challenger.
In the 1930s Rothermere fell under the spell of Princess Stephanie Hohenlohe, of the remnant German royal family. She operated in London as a kind of one-woman honey trap for Hitler. She recognized in Rothermere a malleable mind and, within months of meeting him, had converted him to the Nazi cause on the basis that Hitler was all that stood between Europe and the Soviet hordes. There is a photograph of Rothermere in 1937 looking happy in the company of Hitler and Josef Goebbels while a Daily Mail foreign correspondent stands ready to take dictation.
A year later Rothermere suddenly dropped Hohenlohe. She sued him for breach of contract and threatened to reveal the paper trail of his dealings with Hitler, including his antisemitism. She lost the case but Rothermere paid her costs and made sure she was shipped out to America to keep her quiet just before the outbreak of war. Rothermere then pivoted, claiming that all along his plan was to delay war as long as possible to allow British rearmament. Few people bought it. His private papers for this period have never been released and were probably destroyed. Rothermere died in Bermuda on Nov. 6, 1940. Just before he lost consciousness he said, “There is nothing I can do to help my country now.” He was succeeded by his son, Esmond Harmsworth.
The second Lord Rothermere was no visionary, but he was a safe pair of hands at a time when British dailies, because of the compactness of the country, were able to build circulations in the millions. I first saw Esmond’s style up close in 1964, when the newest of Britain’s press barons, Lord Thomson, threw a lavish banquet at London’s Dorchester Hotel for the oldest, Lord Beaverbrook, to celebrate his 85th birthday. (Both were Canadian.) I was a guest because I had worked as an editor at Beaverbrook’s Daily Express and was then an editor at the Sunday Times after Thomson bought it from another baron, Lord Kemsley.
Beaverbrook was frail. In his prime he had had the swagger of a man sure of his power, a confidant of Winston Churchill and a hands-on proprietor—as much a journalist as a businessman—who bombarded his editors with ideas and instructions 24/7. He had recently told one of his editors that Churchill was dying from the head down and he was dying from the feet up. (The editor guessed, correctly, that he had cancer.) When he arrived for the banquet, I was shocked: he was physically shrunken, his own dark diagnosis evident because the only recognizable remnant of his forceful presence was his head, the broad dome, the saturnine glare, and the firm, rasping voice summoning the last reserves of energy.
The keynote speaker was Rothermere, a tall and courtly figure who was, alas, also a dull and unimaginative speaker. Ironically, this was brought home to the audience when he said of Beaverbrook that he had “ceaseless drive, untiring energy.” And, as weak as he was, Beaverbrook, who followed him, went on to prove it, in a far longer speech that was feisty and mesmerizing, ending with an attack on those who wanted to censor the press, people whose mantra was, he said, “Don’t ever print anything about me that I wouldn’t want people to read.”
Within weeks, Beaverbrook was dead. And, as things turned out, this was the beginning of a lesson in how swiftly newspaper dynasties could flame out. The banquet coincided with the peak of the Daily Express’s success, when it was selling more than four million copies a day. With Beaverbrook’s death the paper lost its driving spirit and never recovered it. His heirs had no flair for the business and sold it in 1977 to the owners of the Cunard shipping line. Roy Thomson, who had awakened a moribund business and turned the Sunday Times into a journalistic powerhouse, acquired the daily The Times and, with it, a bundle of problems, including endless conflicts with the print unions. He died in 1976 and his heir, tired of the intractable resistance to change, sold the papers to Rupert Murdoch, the rare newspaper proprietor who never became a Lord.
The Daily Mail reached a peak daily circulation of 2.6 million in the 1960s. Esmond, the second Lord Rothermere, fell victim to Alzheimer’s and, in 1970, handed control to his heir, Vere Harmsworth, who turned out to have a far greater flair for the news business than his father. He took two decisions that were crucial to the future. First, he converted the paper from a broadsheet to the tabloid format, but one with a middlebrow style, something new in London. Sales rose rapidly. He became the third Lord Rothermere when his father died in 1978. In 1982, he launched the Mail on Sunday, another winning move. He was still highly engaged in the business in 1998 when he suddenly died of a heart attack, at the age of 73, while dining with his heir, Jonathan.
The fourth Lord Rothermere learned much from his father. He understood how important it was to find strong, individualistic editors, pay them well and leave them to do the job. When he came under political pressure to change editorial policy he invariably backed the editors even if, like Dacre, they were a law unto themselves. But that generation of Fleet Street editor, steeped in the language and lore of print, can seem like a dinosaur now when the competition for eyeballs has permanently changed the rules of engagement in the news space.
The Harmsworths have played a very long game very well. Looked at from the perspective of history, it could be said that they have now circled back to the guiding editorial tenets of Alfred Harmsworth, to “conciseness and compactness.” His fortune was founded on the Victorian equivalent of click bait, short and snappy pellets of text flavored with drama and sensation raked up from many unattributed sources. But the other side of Harmsworth, his belief that news was knowledge and that a newspaper could and should provide an education in how the world worked—that side is clearly not part of the mission of MailOnline.
A collision of the two journalisms seems inevitable. Without Clarke’s dominating influence, the outcome is harder to predict.
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