THE BLOG

Is The Sun Paywall a Triumph for Marketing Over Journalism?

08/08/2013 20:26 BST | Updated 08/10/2013 10:12 BST
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It's now been one week since The Sun put its website behind a paywall - after more than 13 years giving its content away for free on the web.

I worked at thesun.co.uk for more than a decade and while we all know good journalism costs money to resource, the new Sun+ paid-for stance leaves me uneasy for that very reason.

It is true that today there is very little monetary value in 'news'. A media outlet's exclusive can spread around the world within seconds and rarely reference them breaking the story in the first place.

So what's the point of a paywall when sites like HuffPost and Mail Online offer very similar content for free?

Well, look at today's Sun online homepage and the answer is clear - it isn't about getting people to pay for journalism.

The idea is to attract eyeballs and make money through offers and promotions not the sort of content the tabloid has been synonymous with for more than 40 years.

For instance, the lead item on Thursday's homepage carousel was a promotional plug for "free" One Direction tickets.

True, there were three editorial stories being pushed alongside it plus eight teasers for showbiz, football and a columnist.

But compare that to the nine teasers for competitions, promotions and perks, along with a massive splash graphic for two-for-one meal deals, and you see what may now be the site's one and only direction for the future.

Sun+ membership is currently just one pound for the first month and it is hard to deny that's unbeatable value.

But is positioning the digital brand with marketing first and journalism second a risky long-term strategy?

After all, The Sun still markets the print edition on news. Thursday's splash had no offers like the ones adorning the online front page, just a simple Sun+ plug, rightly giving print buyers free access.

It led on an 'exclusive' story about Kelly Brook and boyfriend Danny Cipriani; Bank of England governor Mark Carney's view on UK interest rates; and had a picture teaser for a video, only watched from behind the paywall.

This is an interesting juxtaposition.

Offline The Sun still believes 'news' has a value and sells papers. Online it clearly believes the opposite and that only 'offers' will get punters stumping up cash.

And while newspapers very often use offers on their front pages to entice a purchase, it is not to the extent they are so heavily being pushed here online.

Within the articles teased on its pre-paywall homepage, the right hand column doesn't even plug what else of interest there is to read or watch once you have paid.

Instead a graphic highlights perks such as "great days out", "meal deals", "a bargain break" and the Premiership goals app News UK has invested so heavily in.

The homepage proudly boasts savings of up to £226 through Sun+ Perks in return for a single quid.

For me this feels like instead of placing a value on their online content, they are instead devaluing it.

The charging and an attached 'perceived value' relates to content either bought in, such as the goals, or provided by third parties, such as the offers. Homegrown editorial is now bundled in as a sweetener - thus the future of journalism is not supplemented by perks, but it is tagged on to them.

If the feeling is - as it appears and may be true - that no-one will pay for that sort of thing anyway, then why not just leave it free.

This would at least draw masses of people to the site, some of whom would then convert to the paid-for products they otherwise wouldn't have known about. The offers and goals are strong propositions, so if the insider belief is people will pay out for this, then why not charge for this alone?

It will be interesting to see if this marketing-led model proves sustainable. And if so, what happens to the journalists whose content becomes seemingly less important to the package?

Or will the number of subscribers attracted fail to recoup the considerable amounts spent on the football deal and wall-to-wall Sun+ advertising?

In that scenario, what happens to journalists when their content has already fallen down the pecking order of importance, read by far fewer numbers, and there's not enough money from paid-for customers to support its online production?

Once signed into Sun+, it feels as if very little has changed behind the now locked front door, compared to its final day of freedom.

There's a slightly crisper and cleaner design but the content is still very much the same as elsewhere on the web - free from the likes of Buzzfeed and other UK redtops, such as The Mirror and Daily Star.

And both of those have been using social media to shout from the rooftops that they do not charge online.

The Sun's move is undoubtedly a brave one, with which it hopes to redefine a British newspaper industry in decline.

But will that be because of its journalism or at the expense of it?

News UK bosses appear happy with an arrangement that leads to a much smaller but potentially more loyal online readership, paying primarily for offers.

They can then leverage the personal data this audience brings with them and these subscribers are at least putting money into the coffers and not enjoying content taken from a paid-for newspaper for free.

But with a digital-first generation growing up with no real interest in newspapers, their heritage or traditional brand allegiances, a paywall that is designed to stave off losses from a growing print decline could well eventually consign the journalism in both its offline and online arms to just a historic footnote on Wikipedia.