Jon Steinberg on The MailOnline’s Plans for World Domination, New Hire Piers Morgan

Lunch At Michaels

LunchAtMichaelsIt was a true media mashup at Michael’s today as the joint was jam-packed with famous faces (Katie Couric and Barbara Walters at separate tables; Natalie Morales) and moguls (David Zinczenko), while the usual suspects upped the volume to near ear-splitting levels. I had to lean in to catch every word uttered by Jon Steinberg, who joined me for lunch to dish about his new-ish gig as CEO of the Daily Mail’s MailOnline.com, yesterday’s announcement that Piers Morgan was joining the site and his old guard inspirations in this new-media world.

Diane Clehane and Jon Steinberg
Diane Clehane and Jon Steinberg
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I suggested Jon and I do “Lunch” after I interviewed him earlier this year for a Gotham cover story I was doing on New York City’s most powerful millennials, for which he talked about his role in creating  BuzzFeed as its president and chief operating officer. During Steinberg’s tenure, BuzzFeed became a global brand and went from a staff of 15 to more than 500. Turns out our chat was fortuitously timed. Days before the story was set to go to press in May, Jon announced that after four years at the helm of the social news and entertainment site, he was stepping down to pursue his next big adventure.

“Having built this place with Jonah [Peretti, BuzzFeed’s founder and CEO] and the rest of the team, I want to go through that rush again, and there is a certain amount of freedom that I want,” he said at the time. Since when we spoke for the Gotham piece, he’d told me he believed “freedom and independence are the new status symbols,” I was eager to see what his next move would be. A short time later, he announced he was joining MailOnline as chief executive officer of North America. Today he arrived fresh off the set of CNBC, where he appears three times a week as a contributor on Squawk on the Street. Said Jon of his television gig: “I love it because they operate it like a startup. They had the idea for it and just weeks later, it was on the air. It’s a great team.” But clearly, he’s even more enthusiastic about his top spot at MailOnline. “I wasn’t the CEO before and that’s something I’ve always wanted. I get to make a lot more decisions now,” he told me today, between bites of chicken paillard. And he’s making plenty.

Just yesterday it was announced Morgan has been hired as editor-at-large here in the states. Jon told me he met with Morgan before he was tapped for his new gig, but the idea to hire the former CNN host was “the brainchild” of editor Martin Clarke. “It’s a brilliant idea. He’s the perfect fit,” said Jon. “MailOnline is a British crossover and Piers is the ultimate British crossover.” Morgan had been writing for the print edition of the paper and will now be a regular online contributor penning a column as well as doing original reporting and interviews. When I commented that the move also seemed to capitalize on the site’s British pedigree, Jon agreed, adding, “Americans seem to be intrigued by all things British and its history.”

While the current MailOnline is a mere seven years old, its roots date back 120 years, when the paper was first published by Lord Northcliffe who, said Jon, is credited with creating the editors’ credo: When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news. “There’s a lot of rich history there. That People magazine style is something we’ve been doing for 120 years.” While the site’s celebrity coverage is icing on the very dishy cake, Jon points to its hard news coverage of ISIS and the ebola crisis as something “he’s very proud of” and said, “We have an amazing science section.” It’s the celebrity coverage that provides “small relief” to the relentless onslaught of terrifying and sobering news stories that assault us on a daily basis. “Our real readers know we cover everything and it all fits together.”

These days, much of the traffic (60 million U.S. visitors per month and 180 million unique visitors worldwide per month) is due to the compulsively readable site’s head spinning amount of celebrity coverage as well as the largest assortment of entertaining photos of stars going about the daily (and often not so fabulous) lives in Los Angeles and New York. “Speed is our thing. Martin holds several editorial meeting every day where they go through image buckets projected on a large screen in the newsroom.” Any given story of on a celebrity could be accompanied by dozens of photos, said Jon, giving the reader something of a time-lapse photography effect. “People may want to see a different angle of someone — to see the sunglasses a celebrity is wearing or something like that.

A run to Starbucks can yield dozens of photos. A lot of people cannot consume video at the office, so this is a great alternative.” In fact, the picture-driven narrative is at the heart of one the site’s latest innovations to its app, Just Pics, which lets the user scroll through the image on the entire site. MailOnline’s unique voice also allows visitors to get the story in various levels, from a revealing headline, informative bullet points and the full story and accompanying images. “We never make people click through to get the story,” said Jon as he whipped out his iPhone to pull up the app. “Bethenny Frankel is returning to The Real Housewives of New York City to boost ratings,” he read off the homepage. “You could get the story right from there or click on that and get the entire story. The iOS app is great for people addicted to the site.”

In a clever bit of branding, MailOnline even landed a supporting role in Fox’s new Batman prequel, Gotham as the dark metropolis’ go-to news source disguised as Gotham MailOnline (clever, no?). All this bodes quite well for Jon in his new role as CEO as he has said his goal is to make MailOnline “the largest news and entertainment site” in America. In other words, the site that creates the most buzz. Funny enough, when I said I thought the site was hot, Jon disagreed.

“I don’t think it’s hot yet,” he explained. “There are so many brands where the awareness is stronger than the brand itself. The challenge here is to get the awareness up to the same level of the brand. I think it’s one of the best-kept secrets around. There are people who go to it every morning for their news but there are so many people who are not sure what it is — they think it’s this British site and they’re confused by the name.” Not for long, this month, the company is renaming the site Dailymail.com, said Jon.

Big plans for expansion are afoot. The New York staff is moving into their larger new digs on Astor Place in a few weeks. All the better to accommodate the soon-to-be-beefed-up business staff, which Jon told me will double in the next 12 months. He told me MailOnline’s video content is growing exponentially and new advertising products are being developed, namely, more native advertising customized for brands that are all looking for the next big idea. Said Jon: “Four years ago no one was talking about native advertising; now everyone wants it. Ad pitches are all idea-centric. We’ve created advertorials with our editorial team and are doing more original video. We are now the largest news site for video in the United States.”

The biggest area of growth, he said, is mobile video. It’s all about staying nimble and being open to new ideas. “Complacency is a killer and there is no room for arrogance. You have to know where the market is going,” he told me. By spending “70 percent” of his time on sales calls, Jon told me the constant need to generate newness is what keeps innovation top of mind at all times.

This new media guy, who lives on the Upper East Side with his wife and two young children, told me he is very much a great admirer of the old guard. He rarely misses 60 Minutes and NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams because he said, “It’s the most concise way to get a sense of what’s happening.” Surveying the dining room before taking off on his next round of sales calls, he told me: “I’ve always loved this place. When I found out there was a restaurant where the media congregated, I wanted to come here. I grew up reading about Barry Diller, Jeff Zucker and Les Moonves. They’re the reason I got into this business.”

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Hollywoodlife’s Bonnie Fuller and Penske Media’s Vice Chair Gerry Byrne, presiding over their monthly schmoozefest with some very fashionable folks. In attendance: the Today show’s Natalie Morales; PR mavens Jaqui Lividini and Leslie Stevens; designer Cynthia Rowley; WWD editor James FallonLauren Larkin; Marnie Yorke; Marta Wohrle; Yahoo Health’s EIC Michele Promaulayko; Richard Silverstein; and Carolyn Fanning.

2. Perfumer  Marc Rosen, Anne Dexter Jones and two other stylish pals

3. “Mayor” Joe Armstrong and David Zinczenko. After my lunch with Jon, I sat down with the dynamic duo to find up what’s on their agenda this week.  Before lunch, Joe met with a representative from Jordan River Village, a Paul Newman Hole in the Wall Camp in Israel for children with life-threatening illnesses. A passionate supporter and volunteer of the camp, the Mayor was lending his considerable expertise in helping this safe haven for Christian, Jewish and Muslim kids raise much-needed funds from American supporters. Busy Dave told me his hotter than hot new restaurant, White Street, will be hosting none other than President Barack Obama for a fundraiser for the Senate. “The White House comes to White Street,” said a clearly thrilled Dave.  A pretty impressive score for a place that’s only been open for three weeks. A word of advice: just make sure you lock the door once everyone’s inside.

4. Peter Brown

5. PR powerhouse Cindi Berger with long-time client Barbara Walters, who looked better than ever. Cindi and Barbara stopped by our table to say hello and Barbara told me she was off to interview Oprah Winfrey for her annual  “Ten Most Fascinating People” special. We never miss it.

6.  Most of the “Imber Gang”:  Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Michael Kramer and Andy Bergman

7. Dujour’s Jason Binn, who yelled to Katie Couric “You look fabulous!” as she sailed out the door.

8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia at his usual perch with a table of fabulous folks we didn’t get to meet

9.  Bonnie Timmerman

10. Book seller Glenn Horowitz

11. Accessories maven Mickey Ateyeh

12. Agent Lynn Goldberg

14. Mitch Kanner and Michael J. Wolf

15. Marc Rosenthal and Lisa Schiff

16. Jamie MacGuire

17. Lally Weymouth

18. Katie Couric, deep in conversation with Steven Brill until Barbara Walters came over to exchange air kisses.

20.  The lovely Joan Jakobson

21. Attorney Jay Kriegel

22. Connie Lewis

23. Former NBA commissioner David Stern

24. Ad man Martin Puris

25. Media scion Gus Wenner

26. Jon Steinberg and yours truly

27.  Jack Kliger, sharing a bottle of his own private stash of red wine with Bisila Bokoko, Judy Agisim and his former TV Guide colleage Janice Orefice Dehn, who is now director of marketing for Connecticut-based restaurant group Barteca.

28. Tina and Sam Beriro

81. Jack Meyers with Ellen Archer, who I worked with many moons ago when she was an editor at Hyperion. Ellen told me these days the latest chapter involves being an “angel investor” to emerging tech companies whose business plans intrigue her. And, no,  I’m not giving out her email.

Faces in the crowd:  First Comes Fashion’s Nancy Hodin with Connie Morgan… The “Bar-ettes” Kira Semler and Vi Huse, celebrating Kira’s brithday (it’s Sunday) a few days early. Cheers!

Diane Clehane is a contributor to FishbowlNY. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Please send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.

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