Britain's Sun tabloid to tear down paywall to boost readership

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper the Sun is to take down its online paywall, after the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid failed to win enough readers in the latest troubled digital experiment for a traditional publisher.

Copies of The Sun newspaper are seen on a newsstand outside a shop in central London January 20, 2015. REUTERS/Toby Melville

The scrapping of the online subscription, introduced in 2013, marks the failure of the Sun to carve out a niche online, unlike its fierce rival the Daily Mail, which boasts one of the most popular websites in the world.

The decision to remove the paywall is also the first strategic change from Rebekah Brooks since she returned to oversee the Sun and its stablemate the Times as the chief executive of Murdoch’s British newspaper arm.

Brooks, who returned to the company in September, had spent the previous four years clearing her name after she was accused of being part of a criminal phone hacking campaign to dig up news stories.

“I have every confidence that this digital evolution will ensure that the unique space the Sun occupies in British culture will be preserved - and enhanced,” Brooks said in a note to staff.

The website will be free to read from Nov. 30, although some paid-for products will be retained.

The paper’s implicit admission that people were not willing to pay online for its brand of witty journalism comes as the media industry is divided over whether paywalls or online advertising are the remedy to the sector’s struggles at a time of declining print revenue.

“For popular journalism generally, I think it’s incredibly difficult to run a subscription model for that kind of content,” Douglas McCabe, a media analyst at Enders Analysis, said.

“This isn’t premium financial information,” he added.

Newspapers that have made a success of online paywalls include the Financial Times, the New York Times and Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and the Times of London, which will keep the payments, despite the change at its sister paper.

The move to scrap the paywall, the only one to be used by a British tabloid, is designed to rejuvenate the paper.

In September it had 1.1 million unique browsers a day, according to ABC data, far behind the Daily Mail on 13.4 million and the Mirror Group titles on 3.9 million. Actual sales of the Sun newspaper fell by 34 percent in Brooks’ absence.

McCabe said he expected the newspaper to now develop their social media strategy and to try to deliver as big an international audience as possible for advertisers.

“They do have a very powerful brand, and I don’t think that brand has been destroyed in any way. It still has real resonance in the marketplace,” he said.

Reporting by Angus Berwick; Editing by Alison Williams