News Corp. Appears To Favour Softer Paid Model For Britain’s Biggest Paper

Back in 2009, Rupert Murdoch declared: “We intend to charge for all our news websites.” Two years on, and it’s becoming clear that some will be less charged-for than others.

Asked why the website of News International’s mass-market tabloid The Sun, Britain’s highest-circulation newspaper, has not yet followed its The Times and News Of The World by introducing web fees, the publisher’s chief marketer Katie Vanneck-Smith told a City University, London, lecture Monday night:

There’s no plan, there’s no date for when The Sun will have paid news access. The models (across the group) are mixed … We have lots of paid-for extensions already at The Sun. We will introduce (some) paid-for content and services at The Sun in the future.”

That is all very vague, and some way shy of the one-big-wall The Times and News Of The World (The Sun‘s Sunday cousin) introduced in summer and fall 2010 respectively.

Contrary both to the impression some may have taken from Murdoch’s initial philosophical pronouncements and to the earliest execution on them by his Times executives – that a blunt, one-size access fee would be charged – the reality is emerging to be more of a patchwork than a template. News International’s commercial director Paul Hayes said in March: “We believe the blended model is the right model.” Vanneck-Smith echoed that Monday night, saying: “Mixed, blended models are right.” News Corp.’s Australian papers, too, are on-record as favouring WSJ.com’s approach, giving some stories away tactically and through search, than The Times‘ hard line.

Sun Online already operates some pay-for features on its website, like the Sun Bingo game, which is widely believed to be a big cash generator. For it, the problem, which News International may have acknowledged internally, is something even Vanneck-Smith and fellow City University panelists agreed – that general news is hard to charge for. In print it may enjoy a market-leading circulation of just under three million – but, online, it is just one of many sites publishing general news, sport gossip and so on. Unlike serious The Times, whose readers are relatively affluent, The Sun may struggle to make lower mass-market readers pay.

So what model will The Sun pick? At City University later, Vanneck-Smith told paidContent:UK that the new News Of The World website gives visitors one free story – but there’s no indication whether The Sun will adopt such a meter or, instead, piecemeal charges for particular sections of features. Differing consumer psychologies of the distinct reader groups could prove enlightening. A meter was rejected for The Times, for example:

“When we did our research for our consumers, there was a sense that, if you’re going to charge people for an experience that is The Times, actually people get a bit sniffy that a bloke over there may be getting it for free,” Vanneck-Smith said.

“Am I making more money? Yes. News International is making more money week in, week out, in its digital business than it was when it was an ads-only model.

“We are making more money because we have customers paying for an experience that they value and we have advertisers who are willing to pay a premium for the readers that they reach.”

In February, News International said The Times and Sunday Times have 79,000 digital subscribers. Vanneck-Smith said around 1,000 people became new subscribers this Sunday, when The Sunday Times published its Rich List of wealthiest people.

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