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From November 1, 2015, readers of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper in the UK will no longer have to pay for digital access after traffic to the site slumped. Despite the recent backing of paywalls in the face of declining ad revenues by WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell, The Sun’s removal of its paywall provides further evidence that making consumers pay for content is increasingly difficult in a world where social media is being used to actively send consumers the best in free content.

Content needs to be valuable to make consumers pay for it

The Sun was hidden behind a paywall in August 2013 after it was decided that free online access had become “untenable.” In July 2015, the paywall was relaxed so that Sun readers could share selected articles on social media, driving traffic to the site – traffic to had fallen dramatically in the two years since the paywall was put in place – and leading to the end of audited traffic being made publicly available for the site. Some content, such as and Dream Team, remain as paid-for content.

When The Sun first relaxed its paywall in July to allow sharing of selected articles, traffic on the site increased by 62% in a month from just under 800,000 daily visitors in July to 1.3 million in August. In September, readership fell to 1.1 million as the end of the football transfer window caused its usual yearly decline in newspaper traffic. Compared with newspapers such as The Guardian (8.4 million daily readers in September 2015) or Daily Mail (13.4 million daily readers), The Sun lags far behind considering that in print The Sun is the most widely read newspaper in the UK with 12.4 million readers. Top-performing digital title Daily Mail has a print readership of 9.5 million.

The removal of The Sun’s paywall shows an acceptance that the market for journalistic content is highly competitive and that consumers are unwilling to pay for content they can get for free elsewhere. However, free is not the only answer. The Sun’s Club Dream Team has performed well demonstrating that, where content is unique or valuable, the consumers will pay for it. The lesson here is that, as we have seen in other media sectors such as the games market, publishers need to explore a variety of monetization strategies. Having a good selection of free content may act as a springboard for complementary paid content.


Further reading

Digital Consumer Publishing Forecast: 2015–20, ME0002-000586 (July 2015)

Digital Consumer Publishing: Reaching for 2020, ME0002-000583 (July 2015)


Charlotte Palfrey, Research Analyst, Digital Media

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