It’s not often you get to see Rupert Murdoch wave the white flag and admit he got something wrong – but the Dirty Digger’s U-turn in allowing the Sun to ditch its paywall was one such occasion.
Only five years ago the Australian octogenarian predicted all his newspapers would have subscription walls. But since making that statement, the tabloid’s online readership has languished at just over a million per day.
In the meantime key competitors – offering free websites – have grown their audience. The Daily Mirror now has a daily audience approaching four million, while thirteen and a half million people sneak a peak at the Mail Online, the world’s most popular English language newspaper website.
At the time we applauded News UK’s move. After all, what other industry has a business model based on giving away its product for free?
But with the (digital) horse well and truly bolted out of the (digital) gate, we’ve changed our mind. It’s clear that unless you have unique editorial content – we’re thinking of the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal here – the public just won’t pay for news.
Working in PR, this point was highlighted when working with a client earlier this year. We generated features in the Daily Mail and the BBC – sites that are both free and enjoy large international readerships. The resulting coverage immediately led to tens of thousands of new downloads.
By contrast, the impact of a subsequent follow-up story in The Times was negligible, attracting only dozens of new clients. It was a ‘light bulb’ moment for us, illustrating how few people are parting with money and subscribing to The Times online site.
But the increasing popularity of ad blockers – a technology we admit to using – means that even if a paper has a popular free news website, it’s not necessarily coining it.
There are now a staggering 198m people using ad-block users around the world, with number growing at an impressive 41% per year. And those numbers don’t include Apple users who can now do likewise using iOS9.
The end result is that publishers are losing an estimated $22bn in advertising revenue – a sum that would buy an awful lot of newspapers!