It was, of course, The Daily Mash that really nailed the recent Myleene Klass brouhaha. In case you've forgotten (and the chances are you have, so quickly do twitstorms come and go these days), Klass claimed on national television that £2 million "wouldn't buy you a garage in London", and furious debate ensued. The Mash hit upon the perfect way to puncture this rather dubious claim. The story, as so often, barely mattered, because the headline nailed it: "Dodgy bastard who sold garage to Myleene Klass goes into hiding".
And this is what the website's been doing for years now: finding the funniest possible angle on the day's news, and picking up huge traffic because of it. The money that comes in from the website and from its merchandise pays for 10 writers, which, as co-founder Paul Stokes – a cheery, bespectacled middle-aged man with a newspaper hack's line in pithy responses – tells me, "is quite good". I meet with him and editor Tim Telling in a central London pub to talk through the website's history.
It began around 2006. Back then, Stokes and fellow founder Neil Rafferty were journalists in Scotland who'd recently set up a daily business newspaper. Stokes says: "I was the deputy editor. Neil was political editor plus he wrote a funny diary, and I used to write stupid opinion pieces as well as normal stuff. The paper ran from 2000 to 2002. We closed down after we basically went bust, in December 2002.
"But me and Neil stayed in touch. He was working for the Sunday Times and various other people, I was writing for the Daily Record, Scotland on Sunday, and The Scotsman. We kept on being in touch and kept floating journalistic ideas about something to do in Scotland between the pair of us, but we could never really come up with anything we felt was going to work."
Stokes and Rafferty wanted to produce a satirical publication in Scotland next, Stokes says. "But to do that you've got to take risks and make it hard-hitting, and then of course you're going to get sued, and if you cave in on the first attack you're done. We just didn't have the firepower to do that kind of thing."
Then in 2007, the pair had a revelation, according to Stokes. "Why don't we just make it all up? Create this kind of fantasy news site. Obviously we were kind of aware of The Onion, but nobody was doing anything like that in the UK at the time. I think people had tried before and not succeeded, partly due to timing – the internet wasn't quite right – so in 2007 we thought we'd have a go at this thing."
The pair got together the sum of £500 to build a website. It was something of a final roll of the dice, Stokes says. "I'd been writing these opinion columns and I'd been let go by the Daily Record, so now I was writing for Scotland on Sunday. I was writing like, funny weekly stupid news-analysis pieces – they kicked me out and replaced me with Frankie Boyle, who lasted for about six weeks before he had a falling out with them. Neil had left journalism, so I suppose we were both kind of disillusioned with what was happening, even in 2007. All our journalistic pals thought we were very weird because we'd gone off and set this thing up."
All of which, looking at it in 2014, is rather fascinating. Did they actually expect to make any money from an online venture? "Well, you see, we knew nothing about the internet. We did no market research, we didn't know anything about internet advertising, we didn't know how to monetise a website, and we didn't know what kind of audience you needed to make a successful commercial site, which was a huge advantage because if we had known what it is you had to do we probably wouldn't have done it, because it just sounds impossible.
"As soon as we started doing this people were saying, you know, 'You need a minimum of 100,000 unique visitors a month to make this work.' As soon as we got that people said 'you need half a million', then it was a million, and so, you know, we just didn't have a clue."
In fact, Stokes is adamant that low expectations were key to what they did. "It was like a small period before we started doing this when people were chucking money at the internet because it was a new thing, from about 2000–2005. You think back to the big sites, Popbitch, Holy Moly – some of these people were making money. That had stopped by the time we started. [The Mash's launch] had the added benefit of taking place in the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s – we've run our entire business in either an advertising recession or an economic crisis. We've never had to retrench; it started off shit, and has got better."
And it's interesting to think about how they went about building an audience and kept people coming back. The Mash was doing viral internet posts a long time before they became de rigueur for web publishers. As Stokes says, "When we launched we weren't on Facebook, we weren't on Twitter. They were around but we had nothing to do with them. The audience was built purely through word of mouth, which would be email really, the ability of people to email links to their friends. It sounds prehistoric now – you'd hit that button to send it to one person, and we'd get traffic from that. At the beginning the email list was very important, we'd send out a weekly email and you'd see the traffic bumbling along, and the traffic would spike. We quickly built up a list of about 35,000 people. At the time that was the only way you got the thing out. It sounds like ancient history now, doesn't it? If you work on the internet for seven years you'll feel very old."
The Mash began as a Scottish site (it launched at the time of the Scottish parliament elections in 2007), and within a week it was a UK site ("There were good jokes [about Scotland], but just not enough," says Stokes). But one of the stories that lit the touchpaper for the Mash was designed almost entirely for Scots: "Scotland dies laughing". Stokes says: "It was about England failing to qualify for Euro 2008. The England team were so poor they could almost scrape through but I think even England fans didn't want them to go through because they were just so appalling. So we did the story for a website based in Scotland, but the story was huge across the whole UK – people in England found it amusing as well."
Then there was another big hit: "It sounds obscure, but that's typically Mash. We were trying to write about Jerome Kerviel, the rogue trader, who lost 4 billion euros... Nothing was really working. Then on the Friday morning we came up with a story, which was that he'd basically had a breakdown from the stress of working a 30-hour week, because he's French. The story was that he'd be at his desk at 9 a.m., only take a two-and-a-half-hour lunch, and so on. Of course, it resonated with the London financial markets. It was huge, one of those server-busting stories, with the website keeling over every 20 minutes, us hitting it with a spanner to make it work, and again, it just moved us out a bit and created that early core audience of a London, affluent, intelligent, audience."
He adds: "We write satire and stupid jokes, but then you do a story like that, which no one else is making jokes about – the financial crisis was another [example], "Bastard Americans ruin your life", that was another big story for us. The Telegraph at the time did a piece saying the Mash was making The Onion look tame and slow – it had only done one piece about the crisis and it was our top five stories."
So how did he and Rafferty operate during those years? "For the first two years it was just me and Neil, at which point we started to bring people in. We were both working from our kitchens. I was in Glasgow, and Neil was just outside Berwick-on-Tweed. We've always a sort of pretty well-formed view of what it is we're doing. Neil identified that we we're the Press Association in a parallel universe. We're basically writing news commentary, which is what we'd been doing before, but in a spoof news format."
Of course, one thing that marks the Mash out – true, generally, of the best comedy – is that it's not really left- or right-wing. "Yes. We always said we satirise anything without fear or favour. You see comments from people saying we're right-wing or left-wing – you know you're doing it right. At that point it was being run as an imaginary newspaper. We'd have daily conferences – Neil and I would talk at 3pm, go through the agenda, get everything on the site by 9am, and then just plough on. That was the key in the early days, just producing a lot of content regularly of a consistent quality."
I tell Stokes I find it interesting how some of the site's biggest hits haven't necessarily been their cleverest jokes – it's just that they've caught a prevailing mood with regard to a current event especially well. "Initially that was true, we were much more tied into the daily agenda," he says. "I think in part that was just establishing the site. It still is the sweet spot of hitting a topical story, if you hit it with a great series of jokes on the morning. These stories aren't even in the papers, they're on the radio and you get a lot of kudos for doing that. That's the internet advantage."
He continues: "But I think increasingly as the site has grown it's given us the ability to branch out and do things that are more zeitgeisty and less time sensitive. Strangely, things like that can actually work a lot better over a period of time – 'New festival aimed directly at twats' is now 3 years old and still going round. It republishes itself – we do a kind of 'from the vaults' thing but sometimes you look at the analytics and there's a story going mad and it's not one we've repromoted.
"We had one recently called 'Britain to be hit by entirely typical weather'. it was big at the time – but last year over a weekend it went crazy. You trace the history, and it was that the Daily Express had done one of its typical 'Britain to be hit by worst weather since 1483' front pages, and people started off in the forums – and then other people were saying, 'Remember this from last year?' and it did a million views. I think it's now our biggest story of all time and we did nothing to promote it. You've got have a certain level to build it; once you do it and hit the zeitgeisty thing they can have a bit more longevity."
In 2009, Telling, an avuncular youngish man from the West Country, joined the staff. He'd previously been an onllne journalist at the BBC. "Were you fired?" asks Stokes.
Telling says: "Erm, my contract was not renewed. That's what happens when middle-class people get fired. I had this path of doing various shit jobs through life, having been an underachiever at school, and then I kind of blagged my way into a job at the BBC, that was the first authentic mum-pleasing job. I think when I was at the BBC I was always much more comfortable with making stuff up, which may be pertinent. Then I started doing stand-up; that went OK, but that life is just like eating motorway service-station food and developing ulcers and driving in fog, so I realised I didn't want to be doing that. I started doing comedy-writing, pitching stuff for radio and TV…"
But then he got a break: "I emailed some stories in, and Neil wrote back, 'These are not bad.'" For any freelance writer pitching on spec, that's gold, I reply. Telling says: "Yep, so I started getting stuff in, ended up on a retainer, and then when Neil took a step back in 2012 I took the reigns. I tried to continue Neil's legacy. Not that he's dead or anything." Rafferty is now the site's editor-in-chief, and submits in his spare time.
Stokes says: "It was a gruelling job. He'd been editing the site for five years. At the time we were doing four posts a day – we now do six, sometimes eight."
Telling describes what he brought to the team: "I guess Neil and Paul came from journalism, whereas I was a jobbing comedy writer, so I suppose my sensibility was probably more towards being focused on the gag a bit more than the topicality. I think that comes from me being a generally less informed person, who just clutches on the nether regions of popular culture."
That said, the site still draws on the benefits of Stokes' and Rafferty's journalistic training. "Other parody sites don't have the journalistic background so they come up with an idea of what they think journalists would write," says Stokes. "We still have North Americans taking our stories as actual stories."
These days, in part due to online advertising, the sale of annuals (the 2015 annual is out now), and a splendid merchandise store, the Mash is turning a decent profit. Stokes says: "The style is kind of set. There's a Mash tone that hasn't changed and will not change, and that's very important and all the writers have to fit that world. We get a lot of people emailing in asking to write and offering stuff, and I think it must be thousands of people over the years, but we have a team of nine outside writers."
Telling adds: "It's about people thinking creatively within that voice. You sometimes get people submitting things that are like Daily Mash parodies."
One thing that's remained constant is the site's refusal to allow comments. Stokes remains strict on this. "After we did 'Retired people flooding the UK with shit art', I got this huge email, and the person who wrote it said, 'Why will you not allow commenting on your site? You're cowards, you won't allow us to comment.' Then he sent another email saying, 'Actually, given the standard of discourse on the internet, it's probably the wise thing to do.'"
He explains why he doesn't want them: "It's partly because we're old-fashioned – you don't really want to read that stuff." It's also more about preserving standards: "We're providing professionally written comedy on an industrial scale, for people's delight, and if you then allow comments on the bottom it just takes people away. We're just providing people with these things, and we want people to be left with the final crafted joke. If you want debate you can go to Facebook, because we're not allowed to stop people commenting on Facebook, as apparently that is the point of it. I don't understand why people think it's a good thing to interact with their audience."
His attitude on this led to one serious online altercation: "We're very successful on [Facebook], it drives a lot of traffic. But we don't know what we're supposed to do, we just broadcast to it. Quite early on we created a huge row on Facebook: I was just getting hacked off with the commenting thing – people were talking to themselves. On one occasion the comments veered off in another direction.
"So I deleted every irrelevant comment. Within minutes people were setting up groups saying The Daily Mash are Nazis, and posting things about how to destroy our business model. Minutes before they'd been our fans! A friend of mine who's very big in social media, I told him, 'All I did was deleted all these people's comments.' It took him a couple of minutes to respond, because he was so shocked – he was saying, 'Look, these people own these comments.' It all died down after a while. Now we just leave it be."
The other challenge faced by the Mash writers is, of course, libel. Stokes says: "Very early on we were threatened with libel by a very well-known entrepreneur, this was in 2008. We'd written a great innocuous thing which involved this person's business. The whole thing was a mad story – it said this person sucks the souls out of his employees – [but] we got a letter from a well-known libel lawyer. We'd also said he had a tiny penis, and the final paragraph said we'd breached his privacy as a result. We wrote back and said, 'We don't think it's an actual fact that your client consumes his workers' souls, nor do we have a clue about his penis, but if you're going to sue you should probably consult with PR advisers first.' That one was very forceful, but then there was the time we said Maplin was the place to meet for gay sex. We got a sort of apologetic email asking if we could take it down."
The team work on a rota managed by Telling, with some contributing every day, some once a week. They have very little physical contact: Telling's based in Bristol, Rafferty in France, and Stokes near Newcastle, and the site is still largely produced from people's kitchens. And it's working well. So what are their plans for the future?
The website shows no sign of losing popularity: it's now getting around 2 million unique visitors a month. Stokes says: "Traffic is up 30% year-on year. People seem impressed when you tell them what you do. We've been looking at doing video, spoof news bulletins – the economics are difficult. The thing about web publishing is it's cheap to do, so you can allow a certain cross-subsidisation – a successful post pays for a less successful one."
Or, as Telling puts it: "The ones we often think are the funniest do the worst."
Stokes says, "But in video you've got a different proposition because it's expensive to produce. We've been running around on this for a while. We're doing another pilot, it's a loose relationship with a TV company, a guy we've known for a while. It could end up as an online thing. It's not intended for broadcast so it's at a very early stage. We don't have actual plans for world domination."