Never Mind The Numbers: Mail Online And New York Times Are Chalk And Cheese

Mail Online may have overtaken The New York Times’ website for global audience, according to comScore (NSDQ: SCOR) – but, in reality, the two are still an ocean apart.

The macho, competitive ethos of London’s old Fleet Street, on which newspaper executives celebrate beating each other’s circulation, has spilled over on to the web and is being fought across the Atlantic. Mail Online’s meteoric rise, which the company on Wednesday said gives it almost 100 million monthly uniques. is rightly admired.

But that dead-tree machismo is not necessarily the right lens through which to look and comparisons are not helpful. A&N Media’s fast-growing news and pictures vehicle is no more competing with The New York Times (NYSE: NYT) than Coca-Cola is with cod liver oil…

  • Different content: One is laden with celebrity gossip, bikini photos and outrageous news and features written so expertly succinctly that readers just have to click. The other is a sobre, reflective and, some might say, banal examination of the machinations of American public life and culture. (While’s U.S. page led with Court Strikes Down Ban on Gay Marriage in California this week, Mail Online’s was splashing with ‘My adoptive father poured hot sauce in my ears, glued my eyes shut and starved us’).
  • Different businesses
  • : If the two titles aren’t chasing the same audiences, they also aren’t fighting for the same advertisers. While runs campaigns for $500 handbags, Manhattan apartments and Indian bridalwear, Mail Online advertises WeightWatchers, home telecom services and discount wine.

So, the Mail may now be operating in the same U.S. geography as the Times, but the pair aren’t necessarily competing head-on.

Although they each occupy the “online news” space together, observers of that sector who draw linear conclusions from Mail Online “overtaking”’s traffic have got it wrong.

For one, the handover must be seen in two quite distinct but important contexts…

  • NYTimes’ introduction of metered charging early in 2011 has, naturally, negatively impacted upon its web visits.
  • Mail Online likely has not gained readers but has acquired its new audience under its own steam from what was a flat start.

None of this is to denigrate Mail Online’s journey. Whilst some criticise the website’s sensationalist bent as much as the newspaper’s political tactics, it has shown how to build a big online news audience in a new country.

But Mail Online isn’t benefitting because it’s eating’s dinner, and it doesn’t necessarily matter that one’s traffic has surpassed the other – in a still-growing market like the internet, all boats rise.

It is truer to say mass-market U.S. newspaper websites (National Enquirer? New York Post?) face a greater threat from Mail Online than does. But it may be even truer to wonder if the U.S. as a whole has ever quite seen anything like Mail Online.

Whatever, one must at least compare apples with apples.