There is one UK national newspaper whose current ownership dates back to before the last great global flu pandemic just over a century ago.
News businesses looking for tips on how to survive the current crisis could do worse than mimicking this title’s approach.
It requires deep pockets, and even deeper reserves of chutzpah, but I am willing to wager that when the world has returned to normality this publisher will emerge from the mire stronger.
The title I’m referring is the Daily Mail, where insiders describe the paper’s response to the pandemic as Northcliffian.
This is a reference to the paper’s founder Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, the popular journalism pioneer who in 1894 funded an attempted expedition to the North Pole.
Some 126 years later Harmsworth’s great nephew – Lord Rothermere – hatched a plan which was equally ambitious: to tackle the crippling shortage of PPE the NHS was then facing.
The Daily Mail’s detractors, who are legion, dismissed the paper’s £1m “airlift for NHS heroes” of 27 April this year as a publicity stunt – but no other paper has raised as much money during the crisis.
I wonder if the armchair critics of Twitter will be able to look back on this period of national trial and say they did as much?
Within 72 hours of Lord Rothermere (52-year-old DMGT proprietor Jonathan Harmsworth) and Daily Mail editor Geordie Greig meeting last month to discuss the paper’s response to the PPE crisis they had launched a new charity – Mail Force.
Conversations then ensued involving health secretary Matt Hancock and NHS chief executive Simon Stevens, among others, where they discussed what could be done to help.
Within five days of resolving to take action a Boeing 767 Dreamliner loaded with £1m of PPE supplies had arrived in Heathrow from China.
The charity has raised nearly £8m in less than four weeks. The cheques sent in by 40,000 Mail readers would stretch three miles if laid end to end.
On Wednesday, the Daily Mail featured the actress Emma Thompson on its front page boosting an interview in which she revealed she was lending her support to Mail Force.
She said: “I’ve never been as moved by a newspaper campaign. It’s a brilliant initiative which I’m happy to support… For a national newspaper to give people the opportunity to do something they are hearing about on the news every day, this whole question of PPE, was brilliant. You just want to be able to be useful in some way, and the paper gave them the opportunity to do something.”
The vocal left-winger is the last person many would expect to see supporting the Mail, and one insider referred to her coming on side as an event akin to the “melting of Narnia”.
As relative newcomers to the news scene like Vice, Quartz and Buzzfeed have all drastically cut back their editorial operations – Mail owner DMGT has been one of the few UK media companies to avoid making furloughs (in common with News UK).
Instead, staff earning over £40,000 have been asked to take shares in lieu of pay up to a maximum of 26% of salary for the highest earners. The Mail expects a lot from its staff, but it pays well and has repaid their loyalty in these tough times.
At a time when the advertising industry has largely ground to a halt the Mail has been buying TV spots to promote its Mail+ digital edition.
The Mail has also offered 1,000 small businesses free advertising worth a total of £3m. This may well be largely unsold space, but the production effort required to fulfill this scheme will be considerable.
As other newspapers cut costs to cope with plunging revenue during the lockdown, the Mail paid for a World War Two Spitfire to fly over Vera Lynn’s house on the 8 May VE Day bank holiday.
While the Mail has become less visceral in its outrage under the Greig regime (he took over as editor from Paul Dacre in September 2018) it showed it still has the capacity to cause immense annoyance to those on the left with its 15 May front page which rounded on an old foe of the paper – the unions – for opposing government plans to re-open primary schools.
What makes all this activity more remarkable is that from 20 March to 19 May the paper has been produced without a single person in the office.
The result has been some tangible benefits, with subscribers to the paper’s digital edition increasing by half to 60,000 (latest ABC figures) and expected to double pre-lockdown figures next month.
The belief inside the paper is, as one insider put it: “Strong brands come out of a crisis stronger and weak brands sadly don’t.”
The Daily Mail may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but one has to admire its energy. Newsbrands are like sharks, if they don’t keep moving forwards they die.