Earlier this week, The Kernel learned that James Bromley, managing director of MailOnline, planned to leave his job after a tenure marked by skyrocketing page impressions and widely reported commercial success. At the time, Bromley declined to comment on his departure.
Yesterday, however, Mail publisher Martin Clarke confirmed the news in an internal email to DMGT staff that thanked Bromley for his “instrumental” role in creating the world’s largest online newspaper, opening the company’s US offices and defining strategy for the Mail’s digital business.
Though Bromley chose not to be interviewed for this feature, The Kernel spoke to present and former colleagues of his to piece together the career of an executive some people in the industry look upon with quasi-mystical reverence as the man who helped to create the MailOnline phenomenon.
Though a “product person” at heart – that is, someone who likes to build things – Bromley, who was initially more closely embedded with the tech team than his commercial colleagues when he arrived at the Mail five years ago, has in recent years led efforts to make digital advertising pay the bills.
He is credited with many of the innovations in online advertising that have led the Mail to online profitability.
He has been the Mail’s connection to Google, Facebook and Twitter but also its start-up ambassador, frequently meeting with media entrepreneurs and circulating himself around the London start-up ecosystem.
MailOnline was the fifth largest newspaper in the UK, with turnover of less than £3 million, when Bromley joined the team in 2008. The website has since become the world’s largest online news provider, raking in £30 million a year.
The site is now in the black, almost unheard of for a legacy media brand, and revenues are growing 80 per cent year-on-year, according to DMGT sources, and its “sidebar of shame” editorial strategy has become a model for other publishers, imitated by rivals such as the Independent.
During Bromley’s tenure at MailOnline, the site has become renowned – or notorious, depending on your point of view – for creating a compelling but very different product from the print edition of the Daily Mail. This backbone of the website is photo-led features and celebrity news.
The Daily Mail’s website is often cited by the liberal mobs on Twitter as something approaching the anti-Christ. Bromley’s role in making it commercially viable has at times threatened to turn him into a hate figure on the internet.
But Bromley himself has never concorded with the Mail culturally – at least not in public – saying silent during the frequent editorials and comment pieces about the damage Facebook may be doing to young people and Google’s privacy infractions.
The paper has never quite accused Facebook of causing cancer, but it does frequently misunderstand how technologies such as web filtering work. Its journalists might have benefitted from Bromley’s expertise, had he piped up from time to time.
You can understand his desire not to get embroiled in the daily Twitter wars about Mail content and morality, however.
Not everyone at the Mail sings Bromley’s praises uncritically: insiders says he was loyal to publisher Martin Clarke despite Clarke’s methods and mannerisms (he is a newspaper executive in the Dacre mould).
He perhaps should have been more independent and more sympathetic to hairdryer treatment victims, say some.
But, overall, Bromley is considered a pleasant, popular man in addition to his considerable skills. Praise is consistently effusive from former colleagues about Bromley’s management style.
Kirsti Wenn, head of investment at MediaCom, told The Kernel: “James’ vision and depth of knowledge about digital has really helped drive the Mail to embrace and integrate digital into its core proposition and its delivery to consumers. He was an inspirational pleasure to work with.”
Unusually for a media executive, Bromley has bona fide entrepreneurial and technical credibility, having set up and run his own businesses before moving into publishing.
Bromley stood in as chief technical officer for MailOnline while candidates were being drawn up for the position. During that time, MailOnline delivered its suite of news apps, which now boast over 500,000 daily users.
He learned the ropes on AutoTrader.co.uk from 2000, where he was charged with building a digital business that would one day replace the printed AutoTrader magazine. Over the succeeding eight years, AutoTrader.co.uk grew into the poster child for print businesses looking to realise their digital potential.
But his passion is for product, not publishing, say friends. Bromley is a self-described geek and media is “not in his DNA, really”, according to one close friend we spoke to this morning, “which may explain why five years was enough for him at the Mail”.
He’s been cagey about what might be next, even to close friends, but there are rumours of a job offer at another media group and of a start-up project that may fly if Bromley secures the funding he needs. Frequent recent trips to the United States have left friends speculating that he intends to move.
In the meantime, MailOnline will, by all accounts, be nursing a loss.