The Sun’s ‘walled content garden’ brings together print and digital

Today, The Sun newspaper becomes the latest national mainstream medium in the UK to erect a barrier to its content on the web where access to that content is only available now if you pay £2 per week.

Switchover to The Sun’s new paywall-fronted site began yesterday evening, and the new site went live overnight. When you land on the website now,  you’ll see The Sun as the screenshot above shows, requiring a log-in before you get to any meaningful content.

It’s similar in this approach to its stable mate, The Times.

(The Sun is part of News UK, Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper business in this country previously called News International that includes The Times and The Sunday Times. The relaunch of The Sun is clearly part of the company’s ongoing efforts to move on from the phone hacking scandal that erupted in 2011 and that led to the closure of the News of The World newspaper in July of that year; and to the Leveson Inquiry, whose findings and recommendations continue to be matters of lively public discussion.)

The relaunch of The Sun website is part of a brand repositioning known as Sun+, a bundle of content that embraces three elements:

  • Sun+Digital, content not only on the new website but also via free apps for mobile devices.
  • Sun+Perks, comprising freebies, deals and promotions worth more than £200 each month.
  • Sun+ Goals, video clips of every Barclays Premier League goal via a free app for iOS and Android smartphones and tablets.

All that for £2 a week, even less if you pay for a year in advance.

It’s an interesting mix, offering a range of content and experiences that should be an attractive proposition to many existing online Sun readers as well as appealing to new ones (especially with the launch offer of one month of access for just £1).

But what about those who read The Sun in print every day? There are 7.3 million daily readers, according to News UK – what’s in it for them?

A press release on July 30 includes details of how print readers can take advantage of the three ‘content pillars’ if they wish to:

[…] customers who buy the paper but also want to enjoy this fantastic bundle of benefits will be able to collect special codes that will be printed in each paper every day from Sunday August 4.

These codes will initially unlock one month’s worth of digital access and from then onwards, by collecting 20 codes each month, members will receive continuous access to The Sun’s unrivalled digital content and perks. This is possible using the latest InkJet printing technology supplied by Kodak, which has been fitted across all The Sun’s presses in the UK and Ireland. Each press will print a unique code on every single paper every single day.

The bold text is my emphasis. Imagine that – millions of copies of the newspaper printed every day, each one with a unique one-time code individually printed on each copy as the presses run. That’s pretty neat technology.

Yet, I wonder if this includes Band-Aid – employing digital coolness and some clever tech to keep an old business model going in the face of evidence that shows traditional print is continuing to decline just about everywhere as newspaper circulation figures for June 2013 strongly suggest.

At the same time, readership for all things digital continues to rise, even digital content that you have to pay for (the Financial Times being a good example of that) – surely good signals for The Sun’s digital bundles if not for the printed newspaper?

It’s not a view News UK CEO Mike Darcey wholly agrees with.

Yesterday morning, I was part of a group of invited bloggers in a meeting with the News UK CEO and members of the company’s senior team involved in the launch plans including Derek Brown, The Sun’s digital editor.

Darcey believes in the content bundle. It’s the start of a new journey for The Sun, he said, following the success of The Times, broadening the bundle, adding distinctive content, exploiting new technology, getting into video, focusing on subscription.

Paid-for content works against free, he believes, just as in TV (he was with satellite broadcaster BSkyB for 15 years, over six of them as COO: that’s all about paid-for content). In news, he says, “our formula is curated, filtered, world-class comment and opinion, delivered with authority.”

He says that newspapers have always been a bundle of content – a bundle that keeps expanding, which is now expanding to take advantage of new delivery platforms, notably tablets and smartphones.

It’s an optimistic view of a marketplace that seems to me to be in a near-constant state of disruption as we continue a transition not only to those new delivery platforms Darcey mentions but also to new content creators and consumers. That would include The Sun itself – not only is it a newspaper publisher, it’s also a video content creator and publisher as it will produce daily programmes that will be available in the Sun+Goals digital content offering.

It also includes anyone with a story to tell, whatever label they wear, be they citizen journalists, brand journalists, content marketers, whatever and whoever.

The information landscape is vast, it’s growing all the time, and the content choices facing consumers and businesses are equally exciting and confusing. Information overload is just a breath away.

In the midst of all that, if The Sun has a compelling proposition – the print-plus-digital content bundle Darcey speaks of – that its target markets and advertisers recognize as such, and that translates into a willingness to pay, then the prognosis is good.

Today’s Sun+ launch is just a first step, a fact Darcey was at pains to emphasize. That seems quite clear, especially with regard to Sun+Goals, the exciting-looking mobile app. Right now, it’s a purely content-consumption vehicle, as it were: you get the content – near-live video clips of Premier League football goals – that you consume.

Where things will get really interesting is when you have the opportunity to comment, connect and engage with others, share your thoughts… In essence, be part of a dynamic Sun+ community. There are interesting ideas that might be worth exploring over time. For instance, a corps of passionate football fans who are also great communicators who could create match content as it happens.

Look at what sports broadcaster ESPN in the US is doing with hiring bloggers to cover every NFL game, for example. It could lead to niche communities to which you wouldn’t necessarily devote professional journalism resources.

As I’ve said before, if you offer content plus a great experience that people are willing to pay for – no matter how complex, difficult, changing, disrupted and competitive your market is – then the chances are very good indeed that you will have a viable business opportunity.

See also: commentary by others at yesterday’s meeting with Mike Darcey:

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Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

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