The News of the World‘s Michael Phelps bong-smoking exclusive prompted the biggest-ever boost for the paper’s web traffic, according to associate editor Gary Thompson.
In the 24 hours after the story went live at 10.30pm on Saturday night, the site recorded more than 1.5 million unique users, over a million of whom were looking at the Phelps story.
The story showed Phelps inhaling from what appeared to be a cannabis pipe – and prompted an apology from the 14-times gold medal-winning swimmer.
Around 20 minutes after appearing on the NoW website, the story had been linked to by popular US website The Drudge Report and it was later widely followed up in the US, UK and around the world.
Thompson said: “It was good to see that if you are first to publish a story people will search out the original source of the story and read that.
“We put it up on the site a bit earlier than we would normally do. We judge each story on its merits – and would normally break the biggest exclusives through the print edition.
“On this occasion, we had spoken to the Phelps camp and other third parties and we knew it might not stay exclusive for very long, so we put it up.
“The time difference meant it was attracting huge traffic from the US through the night.”
Three weeks ago, the News of the World broke its own record for video downloads when 330,000 people in one day viewed its video showing Prince Harry making racist comments to fellow soldiers.
The paper is increasingly using its website to break big stories.
A week ago, it revealed online that Harry and his girlfriend Chelsy Davy had split up on a Saturday afternoon. News of the World journalists decided to break the story online because they again feared it was not going to stay exclusive.
On Sunday 25 January, the News of the World used its website to break an exclusive interview with pensioner Francisca Lopez – an elderly Spanish woman who complained about comments made by radio presenter Jonathan Ross on his Radio 2 programme.
The producer of the Ross show spoke on-air about meeting the unnamed elderly lady on holiday in Spain, and Ross suggested on air that he should have had sex with her.
Thompson explained that as the News of the World got the story on Sunday afternoon, journalists knew it would not keep for the next print edition so decided to break it online.