Ian Burrell: Despite The Sun’s big paywall success, it’s still early days when it comes to charging for news on the internet

‘The Sun’s’ statistics will contribute to “resetting the mindset of the marketplace”

How will publishers around the world react to claims that The Sun’s big paywall experiment is “paying dividends”? It is difficult to see the big announcement last Friday from Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspaper stable at Thomas More Square in east London as anything less than a positive step, unless you have a personal prejudice against Britain’s biggest-selling daily title.

For The Sun’s new editor, David Dinsmore, this was an early opportunity to go public with some numbers, much earlier than The Times was able to do when it took its first faltering steps into charging for its website in 2010.

Katie Vanneck-Smith, the chief marketing officer at publishers News UK, said that, with 117,000 subscribers to its £2-a-week Sun+ digital offering, the red-top brand had reached a position in three months that had taken a year with The Times.

And Mike Darcey, the CEO of News UK, chose to make strong comments contrasting the free online model currently favoured by most UK publishers with the paid content strategy that he has championed. “When you choose to become a wholly paid-for proposition, yes, you decide to walk away from a long tail of frankly not very valuable inventory,” he said.

Of the 30 million unique monthly users of thesun.co.uk before the paywall, “a significant proportion of them were overseas and many were what you would describe as passing trade,” he said. “Frankly we didn’t make a great deal of money.”

The new Sun stats do not mean a revolution will follow and that most newspaper sites will suddenly be demanding our credit card details. This is because the initial Sun success has been overwhelmingly driven by the success of its “Sun+ Goals” app, based on a deal with the Premier League, which most publishers would never have been able to contemplate.

But there will be a ripple effect. The strategy at News UK is an experiment for the global newspaper empire at News Corp. It’s being carefully monitored by all general news publishers who want deeper engagement with their readers so they can make more money from them – even if they don’t charge subscriptions to read stories. The Guardian, a pioneer of open journalism, wants to turn readers into “members” who attend its live events.

Sun+ offers subscribers “perks”, including meal deals and cinema discounts. It claims that participation rates are five times the level of similar marketing schemes, and that 54,000 of the 117,000 subscribers have played the Sun+ Lotto.

But even though The Sun will add action from Uefa Champions League, England friendlies and FA Cup to its digital offering next season, it will need to highlight more elements of its content bundle than just football to keep growing its subscriber base.

According to Ms Vanneck-Smith, The Sun’s most popular video since it began charging online involves One Direction singer Harry Styles. “It’s not just the goals that people are watching – our showbiz credentials are still extraordinarily strong.” With her thoughts on advertisers, she says 30 per cent of Sun+ subscribers are under 35.

Mr Dinsmore wants to capitalise on The Sun’s expertise in television stories to bring in a fresh wave of subscribers from beyond the ranks of football fans. You could see how a video-driven app with gossip around blockbuster Saturday night shows might prove attractive. But there aren’t the same exclusive rights deals available that exist in sport. Mr Dinsmore is recruiting a “social media team” to try to win new subscribers.

Speak to Douglas McCabe, a newspaper specialist with Enders Analysis, and he will say that The Sun’s statistics will contribute to “resetting the mindset of the marketplace”.

Only a few months ago, The Sun found itself hopelessly trailing the Daily Mail’s Mail Online which dwarfs its traffic after winning the mass audience battle for web-based entertainment news. But, according to Enders’ calculations, the subscriptions generated by Sun+, combined with advertising, already takes it to almost one-third of the £50m annual revenues being made by Mail Online. 

Charging for news is nothing new.  But demanding paid subscriptions for popular news remains a radical concept  in the internet world. It’s still early  days but the success of Sun+ must  have surprised  some people.

The long shadow of Hillsborough

David Wooding’s presidency of the 130-year-old Liverpool Press Club has caused some disquiet in the Merseyside media.

Wooding, political editor of The Sun on Sunday, is popular in the Westminster lobby and a lifelong fan of Liverpool FC. But The Sun is still reviled on Merseyside for its Hillsborough coverage and some members of the press club are in revolt.

“It’s already causing ructions in certain parts of the city,” one journalist told Liverpool Confidential website, saying he no longer wished to be associated with the Press Club, which held its annual dinner on Friday. The influential Anfield Wrap football site called for the Press Club to “strip Wooding of his title and no longer allow him to justify the uncomfortable duality of his position at The Sun on Sunday and his claims to be a ‘Liverpool fan’.” Interestingly, the editor of The Sun on Sunday, Victoria Newton, is another devoted Kopite.

Keep calm while we abuse Google

As European Union anti-trust chief Joaquin Almunia prepares to conclude an investigation into Google’s potential abuse of its position on internet search, a fierce lobbying war goes on behind the scenes.

At the heart of this battle is the Initiative for a Competitive Online Market Place (ICOMP). This organisation uses the London office of the global Burson-Marsteller PR organisation as its “secretariat” and takes funding from Google’s rival Microsoft, which is also its initial trustee.

It appears to be dedicated to Google-bashing, with the last 10 posts on its online blog dealing with the search giant – a rival to Microsoft’s Bing. ICOMP said it represented “a wide-ranging group of organisations” and that the Google hearing was “the most important case affecting the online community”. Not that Microsoft is shy about its loathing of Google. Its latest wheeze is to capitalise on Google’s scanning of Gmail users’ emails by releasing a range of mugs bearing the Google logo and the slogan “Keep Calm While We Steal Your Data”.