Mail Online maestro Martin Clarke joked that the website was an “overnight success” that took “13 years of blood, sweat, quite a lot of cigarettes and quite a lot of booze” in a 15-minute leaving speech on Wednesday.
Clarke bid farewell to his Mail Online colleagues after leading the website for 13 years and playing an instrumental part in building it into one of the biggest in the world.
Clarke said in December that he was leaving his role as publisher to “pursue new challenges” but that he would “remain available” to the company until the end of 2022 to support it in its search for a new leader.
Clarke told staff on Wednesday to give Groom and his team “the same commitment and loyalty that you’ve given me over the years”.
Clarke, who has been a professional journalist for 37 years and an editor for 27, joked that “being an editor does make you a monster. Or in my case more of a monster”.
Former Scottish Daily Mail and Scotsman editor and Daily Record and Sunday Mail editor-in-chief Clarke said leading Mail Online had made for “the best professional years of my life” but that it was not a job he had actually wanted at the start.
“I assumed when they foisted it on me that I was being shafted,” he said. “And maybe I was. But anyway, pretty quickly I realised that all that reader data you get instantly in real-time gave me, as an old-fashioned newspaper editor, superpowers.
“And I was addicted, and pretty soon so were the readers. I couldn’t imagine, within a few months, ever going back to a world where I produced one paper a day, or where you have to be pigeonholed as a broadsheet or a tabloid, or we have to guess what the readers actually wanted to read rather than instantly knowing for a fact.”
Clarke said that Mail Online is still like a newspaper, however, in the sense that “the vast majority” of its readers come directly to its homepage and app, which combined bring in 80% of its revenue – making it more “stable” than others that rely on Google and Facebook.
In 2019 Mail Online’s search traffic halved after Google changed its algorithm, while last year the site claimed it was being downgraded in search results.
“Every now and again, they tweak the algorithms,” Clarke said. “Some win, some lose; we usually lose if it’s Google. But it doesn’t matter to us. So long as we can keep people coming back to that homepage every single day over and over and over, you’ll be in jobs.”
Clarke paid tribute to David English, who was editor of the Daily Mail when he first joined the paper in the 1980s, and his successor Paul Dacre who has worked alongside Clarke during his time at the top. Dacre is now in an advisory editor-in-chief position for the Mail, Metro and i titles.
Clarke said the pair were “for my number, the best two since the war” before joking: “I don’t think either of them are here. At least David English has the good excuse of being dead.”
Recalling when another colleague tried to “strangle” him in the pub after he started at the Daily Mail in 1987, Clarke added: “Paul Dacre was also already on the Daily Mail. He didn’t strangle me, but I’m pretty certain he wanted to on many occasions since.”
Clarke praised Lord Rothermere for taking DMGT private at the end of last year after nearly a century on the stock market. He told staff: “I think you should also bear in mind that he’s just underlined his and his family’s commitment to the business of journalism by taking the company private and I think that’s a great thing to do.”
He said Lord Rothermere had “stood by” Mail Online even when there were “a few people who were doubters, who maybe thought we were going down the wrong road”.
He later added: “Now, we had to get over a few humps to get here. We had to design the website from scratch. I know every website looks a bit like us now, but they didn’t when we started.
“I remember when we redesigned the website and launched it, everyone laughed. All the people at The Guardian, in the trade press, I forget what they said but it wasn’t very complimentary. And I kind of panicked a bit and I thought ‘shit what have I done’, but then the traffic started just like that. And now, as you know, everyone copies us.”
He noted “having designed the website, we couldn’t find a content management system to make it work, so we had to build one from scratch” and said “it also took a lot of work to get our commercial strategy right”.
“Under the leadership that we’ve now got… We’re now properly profitable. And so after 13 years of blood, sweat, quite a lot of cigarettes and quite a lot of booze we’re an overnight success, apparently.”
Clarke went on: “We’re actually building a good reputation for breaking proper exclusives. And that’s something that must continue.
“You all know, I hope, that if you visit any newsroom anywhere in the English-speaking world really, on half the screens in the newsroom, you’ll see Mail Online, you’ll see us.
“We not only survived Covid but we actually thrived. It’s an awful thing to say but we came of age during Covid, I think, you all did amazingly. And the fact that we did it from home when we had to without there being any real notable difference in the product. I think it’s amazing. It wasn’t what I expected, I can tell you that.”