On July 11 of last year, I arrived to work at the MailOnline newsroom in New York City and saw Keith Poole, our managing editor, standing outside smoking a cigarette. Even from a hundred yards away, it was clear that Poole—a generally pleasant Englishman who was the managing editor of the Daily Mail at the time—was agitated. It didn't take a detective to figure out why.
Two days earlier, MailOnline, then the name of the online arm of London's Daily Mail tabloid newspaper, had issued a rare public apology, admitting it had published a bogus article about actor George Clooney's now mother-in-law, Baria Alamuddin. The story had claimed that Alamuddin, who is Lebanese, was telling "half of Beirut" that she opposed Clooney's then-upcoming marriage to her daughter for religious reasons. It had gone further to suggest that in the Druze religion—which the Mail falsely claimed Alamuddin practiced—marriages without family approval can result in the death of the bride.
This anemic expression of regret was offered only after Clooney had written a scathing op-ed for USA Today spotlighting the inaccuracies in the Mail's piece and trashing the publication's reporting. Clooney rejected the Mail's half-hearted apology with an even harsher essay, re-published by blogs and news sites around the web, in which he called the Mail "the worst kind of tabloid" and wrote that it had constructed a "premeditated lie" in an effort to create "religious tensions where there are none."
"Rough week?" I asked Poole after he'd finished his cigarette and stepped into the elevator.
"Haha. Yeah," he responded.
"Clooney?" I asked.
"Ugh," Poole shot back. "The lying bastard." (Poole says he can recollect having a brief discussion about the Clooney complaint with someone else in an elevator, but denies speaking with me and says he never called Clooney a "lying bastard.")
And then he added: "Don't tell anyone I said that."
MailOnline—which has since changed its name to DailyMail.com in order to "mak[e] deeper inroads … with ad firms on Madison Avenue," according to the Wall Street Journal—has been widely hailed as a blueprint for the future of online journalism. It reaches hundreds of millions of readers, and it has hired former BuzzFeed COO Jon Steinberg to help turn those gargantuan traffic numbers into profit. Earlier this year, DailyMail.com acquired U.S.-based site Elite Daily, the so-called "Voice of Generation Y."
The eager paradigm-proclaimer Michael Wolff used his USA Today media column last August to praise the Mail's business model as having succeeded where other, better-funded and more prestigious publications have failed. Under the headline "Daily Mail Solves Internet Paradox," Wolff lauded the publication's "180 million unique visitors a month" and suggested that if other publications want to survive the "digital migration" they should adopt a model similar to that of the Mail's.
What Wolff failed to acknowledge: the Mail's editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.
Yes, most outlets regularly aggregate other publications' work in the quest for readership and material, and yes, papers throughout history have strived for the grabbiest headlines facts will allow. But what DailyMail.com does goes beyond anything practiced by anything else calling itself a newspaper. In a little more than a year of working in the Mail's New York newsroom, I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications' work lifted wholesale. I watched editors at the most highly trafficked English-language online newspaper in the world publish information they knew to be inaccurate.
"We do things a little differently than you might be used to," U.S. editor Katherine Thomson told me, early in my time there.
She was right.
I wish I could say that I had taken a job at DailyMail.com as part of a grand scheme to infiltrate the publication and expose all of its dirty laundry. The truth is far less glamorous: I needed a job, and the Mail was offering a reasonable amount of money to do relatively mindless work.
And so from May 2013 until July 2014, I worked as one of roughly 25 freelance news writers in the Mail's New York newsroom. At the time of my employment, the newsroom was a big, open room with four long rows of tables that served as workstations for approximately 60 writers, editors, photo editors, video editors, office managers, and IT people. (It's since moved to what I'm told are some fancy new digs uptown.)
In the southwest corner of the room, the publisher, Martin Clarke—best described as a cross between Seinfeld's Mr. Pitt and a withered version of Simon Cowell—could often be seen at his desk spewing profanity or threatening to fire someone for infractions as minor as using the wrong-sized image in an article preview. A healthy fear of Clarke's frequent tantrums seemed to be the motivating factor behind nearly all editorial decisions.
The production process was simple. During a day shift—8 a.m. to about 6 p.m—four news editors stationed together near Clarke's desk assigned stories to reporters from a continually updated list of other publications' articles, to which I did not have access. Throughout the day, they would monitor the website's traffic to determine what was getting clicked on and what to remove from the homepage.
When a writer was free to write a story, he or she simply would shout "I'm free" and an editor would assign a link to an article on the list. In many cases, it would be accompanied by a sensationalized headline—one that may or may not have been accurate—for the writer to use.
During a typical 10-hour shift, I would catch four to seven articles this way. Unlike at other publications for which I've worked, writers weren't tasked with finding their own stories or calling sources. We were simply given stories written by other publications and essentially told to rewrite them. And unlike at other publications where aggregation writers are encouraged to find a unique angle or to add some information missing from an original report, the way to make a story your own at the Mail is to pass off someone else's work as your own.
As part of my initial training session, I was told that any link or attribution in an aggregated piece should be placed no higher than the first set of images in the post—which were typically three or four paragraphs in, where a reader might overlook the fact that the information provided in the preceding paragraphs had no attribution. If the original report was an article in the New York Daily News, a direct competitor of the Mail's, I was sometimes instructed to not give attribution at all. (The Mail, contacted for comment, maintains that its standards for attribution are high: "We often link above the first three photos and we link to the NYDN on a daily basis," it says. "We always strive to attribute." After this article was first published, a spokesperson followed up: "We always strive to make the story better, whether through a new angle, new photographs, or additional information and quotes.")
Often enough, the only original information the Mail would contribute to the story would be an error or some sensationalized misrepresentation of facts. In January of last year, one of the site's editors, Lucy Cockcroft, assigned me a link to a New York Times article, an exclusive story profiling a woman who had recently died of cancer. The Times reporter had been with the woman and her family through the weeks leading up to her death and had written a moving narrative about how the woman spent her final days. My job was to repackage the story in such a way as to cash in on any emotional interest the Times might have missed.
To accompany my rehash of the Times story, the Mail needed an image that was supposedly of the deceased woman. A photo editor and I found an image on a social media site of a woman with the same name but different biographical information. We sent it to Cockcroft in an effort to amass as much material as possible for her to sift through, along with the note that it was likely not the same woman. We tried to dissuade her using the image, but she ran it anyway.
A few days later, the Mail received an email from the woman in the photo, who assured the publication that she was not transmitting messages from beyond the grave, as she was very much alive. "Please correct this mistake," she wrote.
The Mail made no attempt to publicly acknowledge that it had published the wrong person's photo. Editors decided a disappearing act would be much better for business, so the Mail just removed the photos from the story as if the whole thing had never happened.
I was angry that such a glaring mistake appeared in a story I had written—but at least my name wasn't on it.
I was originally hired, after a brief writing test, in a probationary "freelance" capacity—a status nearly all new hires at the Mail go through before being offered a staff job or being kicked to the curb. After two months of evaluating my performance, the editors offered to move me to a full-time staff position, with benefits. I turned down the promotion. As a contractor, I wasn't expected to attach my name to the articles I was writing, or, rather, rewriting (though freelance writers are allowed to, and often do, use their real names). Had I accepted the full-time staff job, that likely would have changed.
Other writers had turned down similar offers out of a similar sense of shame. After watching editors frequently change things I'd written without telling me or without checking whether the changes were accurate I decided I didn't want my byline on my work. I was still willing to do the work; I had bills to pay. I would create content and let them do with it what they pleased.
And so for some 500 articles I hid behind the anonymous veil of the "Daily Mail Reporter" byline. Six times, my name did get attached to a story. One of these was under the headline "Private school teen 'enlisted gang member friends to help beat and kill his father before emptying his bank account and going on a 2-day shopping spree.'"
Unsurprisingly, that's not the headline I wrote when I filed the story; an editor had dreamed it up after I'd gone home for the day. It would have been a fine headline—if it had been true. For one thing, the teen had not yet been convicted, despite the certainty of the headline. But so it goes at the Mail, which has all but abandoned the word "allegedly" in favor of putting quotation marks around a paraphrased description of the deed in question. The phrase in quotation marks never even appeared in the story. The punctuation served merely as a distancing mechanism.
What's more, the "private school teen" was barely a teen—Matthew Nellessen was a 19-year-old adult—and, other than a three-month stint which resulted in expulsion, he didn't go to private school.
The Mail says it changed my headline "to make it more descriptive," and that "private school" is appropriate descriptor because Nellessen once attended St. Viator High School—for less than three months, when he was 15.
But if the tabloid media learned anything from Lyle and Eric Menendez—the California brothers convicted of murdering their wealthy parents—it's that "private school" makes for a sexy headline, guaranteed to stir up certain antipathies in readers. And so Nellesen, who'd met those "gang member friends" during a prior stretch in the county jail, was turned into a stock tabloid character: rich kid gone bad.
"Private school teen … gang member friends … kill his father … 2-day shopping spree'": These are evocative phrases, conjuring a world of dissolute privilege. "Juvenile Delinquent Allegedly Kills Father" would've been decidedly less sexy, but at least it would've had the virtue of being true.
I told the editors about the inaccuracy. They kept the headline, and my byline is still attached to something that I know is a lie. (In fact, MailOnline has since edited the piece to include a casual mention of his supposed tuition.)
In January of last year, I was summoned to the offices of the New York Post. In theory, I was there for a job interview, but it didn't take long for it to become humiliatingly clear that the Post wasn't interested in hiring me. It was interested in mining for information about the Mail's business model.
The Post, an interviewer told me, was in the process of transitioning its digital platform from a New York-centric model that fed off its print product to that of a national online publication that was separate from the print paper—much as the Daily Mail had done by distancing itself from DailyMail.com. I suspect a similar fishing expedition was the impetus for a "job interview" I had at AOL.com. I didn't get that job, either, but I was asked a lot of questions about the Mail.
The Mail, for its part, was busy ripping off content from the old models. On February. 7, 2014, DailyMail.com received a cease-and-desist order from a Post attorney, claiming that an article on the Mail's site was directly plagiarized from the Post. The article was about a lawsuit filed by the family of deceased playwright Leonard Melfi against Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan over the bungled handling of the playwright's body after his death.
"The Mail Article is substantially similar to, and includes unattributed, direct quotes from, the Post Article," the Post's lawyer wrote in an email. "We believe that the Mail Article infringes the copyright in the Post Article, owned by NYP Holdings, Inc. and ask that you immediately take the Mail Article down from your website. We also ask that you cease and desist from infringing the copyright in NYP Holdings' content."
The Mail article clearly was organized in the same way as the Post's, and it used several direct quotes that had appeared in the Post's article. No public apology to the Post was offered, and no correction was made. The Mail simply removed the plagiarized article from its website as if it had never happened. The writer of this article, a freelancer, was never disciplined; he's still churning out "aggregated" articles for the Mail.
I was not oblivious to the Mail's reputation going into the job. Its buccaneering approach to accuracy and intellectual property has gotten a significant amount of media attention over the years. In fact, the Mail had plagiarized an article I had written while working at another publication. In that instance, the Mail lifted direct quotes that were provided only to me and used them in its article without any link or attribution to indicate that the information was from another news outlet.
Given that experience, I obviously had concerns about the publication's reputation, but I figured that with the Mail's growing popularity it must now be holding itself to a higher journalistic standard. A May 2013 New York Times story about the Mail's growth gave me additional confidence that I was joining a somewhat credible publication, and I started to get excited about the prospect of working for a news outlet with such enormous reach.
That excitement quickly faded when it became clear that the only thing about the Mail's ethics that had changed was that it now attempted to disguise its plagiarism as aggregation. It was the same Mail, just bigger.
In August 2013, a few months after I started work, the Mail was sued by a woman whom the Mail had identified as a porn star with HIV. The only problem with that was that the woman was not a porn star and did not have HIV. More recently, the Mail re-published an article from its sister publication, The Mail on Sunday, suggesting that pop singer Taylor Swift was a lesbian. After other publications began to pick up on the story—which, like most of the Mail's salacious articles, was based on statements from an anonymous source—the Mail memory-holed the story with no explanatory note. When contacted by Gawker, MailOnline said it was spiked at the request of The Mail on Sunday and provided no further explanation.
The brief conversation about George Clooney in the elevator with Poole was the last of many straws. Here was the managing editor of a publication that had just admitted that it had run a made-up story, calling one of the subjects of that phony story a liar.
It seemed beyond shameless, even by DailyMail.com standards. But it was indicative of the general attitude of the Mail's leadership, with publisher Clarke leading the charge: They weren't angry that they had published a fictitious story; they were angry that they had gotten caught. No changes were made to prevent something like that from happening again and the two women whose bylines appeared on the incorrect story—Hannah Roberts and Sara Nathan—are still working with the Mail, Roberts as a freelancer and Nathan as the publication's "U.S. Showbiz Editor."
After the conversation with Poole I had decided it was time to bid this job adieu and began looking for an exit strategy that wouldn't leave me unemployed. But that never happened—just a few days later I was assigned a story that was exclusive to another publication. This, of course, meant I would yet again be forced to explore the line between aggregation and plagiarism.
It was my breaking point – rather than write the story, I went for a walk around SoHo, asked my girlfriend if she was OK with me quitting without having another job lined up first and went back to my desk, where I wrote an email to management letting them know that I was done. Then I walked out of the newsroom in the middle of a shift to join six-percent of America in the unemployment line.
DailyMail.com will likely write me off as a disgruntled ex-employee with an ax to grind. Fine. But the truth is I was paid a reasonable amount of money to do a relatively mindless job. I was offered a full-time role and rarely was hassled by editors.
My father, playing devil's advocate as I kvetched for months about the Mail's dishonest practices, often would ask the question, "What is the Mail trying to be? A credible news outlet, or something that's just for entertainment?"
But it doesn't matter what the Mail is trying to be. What matters is what it actually is: a publication with millions of readers—many of whom believe what they're reading—that is not only cited as a credible news outlet by other publications, but is also being held out as the new model for online journalism. With the reach the Mail has come to enjoy comes responsibilities that it either doesn't realize, or doesn't care about.
Update 3/6: MailOnline has provided us with a statement, which we've reproduced below, followed by a response from James King.
We utterly refute James King's claim that DailyMail.com depends on 'dishonesty, theft of copyright material', and the publication of material we 'know to be inaccurate'.
King was a freelancer who worked sporadic shifts at DailyMail.com. [REDACTED IRRELEVANT PERSONAL SMEARS]
He offered a version of the story published by Gawker to the Washington Post last year—they rejected it after its inaccuracies and his unreliability were pointed out.
These are some of the many inaccuracies in his Gawker article:
- He claims in his Gawker piece he had a conversation with our Managing Editor Keith Poole outside our building during which our Mr Poole described George Clooney as a 'lying bastard'. He told the Washington Post this conversation took place in an elevator and was between our Mr Poole and another person. FACT: Both our Mr Poole and the person involved confirm they had a conversation in the elevator, but Mr Clooney was not called a 'lying bastard'. There was no conversation between King and our Managing Editor, outside the building or in the elevator. DailyMail.com has never sought to make light of its error in publishing the story about Mr Clooney, which was an error not a fabrication. We apologised promptly and profusely at the time.
- He suggests we published a picture, purportedly of a woman who died of cancer, knowing it was another woman of the same name. He admits he helped find the picture on social media, but says he sent a note saying it was likely not the same woman. FACT: It was King who suggested it was the correct picture, which we published in good faith, believing it to be of the right woman. In fact the woman in the picture we used was the sister-in-law of the dead woman, who shared the same first and last names, and looked extraordinarily similar to her. We can find no note from King, apart from one he sent after the woman in the photograph complained, saying he had been unable to confirm the picture was of the correct woman.
- He quotes a headline about a 'private school teen' killer, which he claimed was inaccurate and written by one of our editors to make the killer a 'stock tabloid character'. FACT: King told the Washington Post the teenage killer in question had never been to a private school. He told Gawker the killer had been at a private school for three months. In fact he killed his father for money left by his dead mother to pay for his private schooling – so his attendance at a private school was central to the story.
- He claims we identified a woman as a porn star with HIV, and the woman, who was not a porn star and not HIV positive, sued. FACT: We published a genuine story about an un-named newcomer to the porn industry who was HIV positive, but it was illustrated with a stock image of a model posing on a bed before a camera. The model turned out to be a well-known porn star, who sued. We removed the picture.
- He claims DailyMail.com wrote an article suggesting Taylor Swift was a lesbian, which was mysteriously withdrawn. FACT: The article, which did not mention lesbianism, was a diary item written by The Mail on Sunday in London and put to Ms Swift's PR repeatedly before publication. The PR called the paper after publication, apologised for not having responded earlier, and asked for the story to be withdrawn because it was not accurate.
- He claims the DailyMail.com photo desk ran the Today Show's photos despite its explicit denial, showing a cavalier attitude towards rights and cease and desist orders. FACT: No copyright photos were used, grabs were credited and linked and we have never had a complaint from NBC about this story. [Editor's note: This claim does not actually appear in our story.]
- He claims that he was told original links should not be placed higher than the first pictures and was told not to link to the New York Daily News. FACT: This is demonstrably false. We always strive to link prominently and, in fact, we had to give Mr King several verbal reminders of this policy.
DailyMail.com is the world's biggest news site because it takes its journalism very seriously. It receives 21.2 million visits a day from 13.9 million people, almost half of which are direct visits to one of our home pages and apps - because they have come to trust and love DailyMail.com and MailOnline.com as their go-to site for daily news.
It is also the site that every major newsroom in the UK and US follows obsessively because of our unrivalled record of posting both exclusive and breaking news stories. We will continue to let that journalistic record speak for itself.
What follows is James King's response to the statement.
I'm more than happy to respond to the Mail's points, which range from the factually untrue to the obviously disingenuous to the simply irrelevant.
To begin with, let's talk about June 11. Of course, it comes as no shock to me that Mr. Poole would deny that this happened, but this is the exact sequence of events: I got into an elevator with Keith Poole and a colleague from the Mail's business department after he and this colleague were outside smoking and talking. Their conversation continued in the elevator and was about the Clooney fiasco that was humiliating the Mail that week. The colleague got off on the third floor, where many of the Mail's business offices were located. When he got out—and Keith and I continued to the newsroom on the fourth floor—I said to Keith, "rough week.?" He laughed and said "yeah." I then asked "Clooney?" He then said, "the lying bastard" and mentioned something about suing him.
The reason I am able to remember this conversation so clearly—down to the date—is that immediately following I sent a Facebook chat to my girlfriend explaining what I had just witnessed and the fact that the conversation made me want to quit. I still have that conversation saved.
As to the point about the woman whose photo was mistakenly used in an article about a woman who had died of cancer: At no point did I suggest to editor Lucy Cockcroft that she use a photo of a woman whose identity we could not verify in the story. A photo editor who was there that night confirmed in an email in the days following that we had specifically told her that we weren't sure if it were the right woman and that it was ultimately Lucy's decision to use the unverified image. He went further to say that the story was something that publisher Martin Clarke had specifically wanted covered so there might have been some added pressure on Cockcroft. From that email, dated January 21:
While both women have the same name, look very similar and shared many Facebook friends (including people who appeared to be the deceased woman's children), there were inconsistencies between the biographical information mentioned in the Times article with the info on that Facebook page. I told Lucy Cockcroft, who was news editing that night, about these differences and that I wasn't 100% sure that this was the correct woman, but she ultimately decided that we should use those pictures. I think this request came directly from Martin Clarke, so there was obviously some added pressure, but at the end of the night it was Lucy's call.
With respect to the headline about Matthew Nellessen—the "private school" "teen" killer the Mail is anxious to defend as such: Matthew Nelleson was 19 years old when he killed his father. He was barely a teen and wasn't a student anywhere, in fact, as the Mail itself reported, he had recently been released from jail when he murdered his father.
According to media reports, the money in question was Social Security benefits he was given by his mother that his father set aside for his college tuition— money for "private schooling" only in an absurdly technical sense.
Furthermore, he had most recently been a public school student, at Prospect High School. His attendance at private school was limited to three months at St. Viator when he was 15. I leave it up to the reader to decide whether or not three months at a private school, four years earlier, are enough to qualify 19-year-old Nellessen, at that point recently released from jail, as a "private school teen."
I have no real desire to litigate the issue of the "porn star." There is plenty of documentation of the lawsuit online. The woman the Mail identified as a porn star who had HIV is Danni Ashe, a.k.a. Leah Manzari; she has never appeared in a hardcore film and does not have HIV. If the Mail is so eager to dispute this it should leave her photograph up and hash it out with Ashe's lawyers.
The article in which the Mail implied Taylor Swift is a lesbian did not specifically "mention" lesbianism, no, because the implication was so strong it didn't need to, which is why other publications began circulating a rumor about Taylor Swift's sexuality started by The Mail. In any event the real trouble with this episode was the practice of deleting the article with no notice or explanation.
Finally, my training. I was trained by Louise Boyle, who specifically told me that Martin Clarke did not want to see links or attribution any higher than the first three paragraphs. This is, obviously, not universal—sometimes links appear higher, and sometimes lower. But the general rule is to keep links below the first set of images. If you take a look at the majority of the Mail's stories, you will see that this is almost always the case. Other Mail former Mail employees will attest to this.
On two occasions I remember specifically, I was told by the editor who assigned me a story not to link to it because it was a New York Daily News article. The rumor is that Clarke has a deep-seated hatred of the Daily News for poaching some of his employees. I can't verify that, but that's the rumor.
I was rarely hassled or "reminded" by editors about anything. I went to work, did what they asked and left. Once, early in my time there, I had provided attribution but could not get a link to connect to the story in the Mail's content management system. I told an editor about this and was told he would fix it because I was about to go home. He didn't fix it and I was given a reminder by a different editor to provide links when I showed up for my next shift. I explained what had happened and never heard another word about it. This happened once.
Update: This story has been updated since it was first published to correct Keith Poole's role—he was managing editor, and not a celebrity editor, as we originally wrote—and to clarify that the Taylor Swift article mentioned originated with The Mail on Sunday, a sister publication of MailOnline and a source of some of its stories.
[image by Jim Cooke]