News UK is investing millions of pounds in the Sunday edition of The Sun, with new staff and a marketing campaign, designed to buck the declining Sunday newspaper market.

The Sun on Sunday has added another 16 journalists and moved Victoria Newton to the editor’s chair, six weeks on from the launch of the Sun+ subscription platform, with its football rights and new digital products.

I went to Wapping to meet Newton, David Dinsmore and Sun on Sunday columnist Tony Parsons who has just defected from the Daily Mirror after 18 years. Warning: may contain Tolkien references.

Relevance behind the paywall

As we’ve discussed, the problem with putting your content behind a hard paywall means that it’s hard to get noticed. Dinsmore isn’t bothered about the loss of traffic and neither, he says, are his staff:

“No, I think people understand that. I would say The Sun has been as much part of the national conversation in the last few months as it was before. I don’t think being paid on the website made any difference to that.

I think the staff fully understand that we need to be paid-for to give us a future. There  may be a future for five or ten people putting together small, limited digital publications, but there will not be a future for something like The Sun with a staff of many hundreds, unless we are paid across all platforms. We can’t be paid in print and give it away somewhere else.

And is there a frustration when The Sun has a world exclusive and only online subscribers can see it? “Not at all, that’s great. You’ve answered your own question, only subscribers can see it.”

Dinsmore is animated and enthusiatic about his brands. He drinks peppermint tea and won’t say which football team he supports from his native Glasgow, diplomatically opting just for “Scotland”.

As for the progress of Sun+ as a platform, Dinsmore won’t talk numbers but plans to soon. “I want to get away from talking about a print number – that’s the exciting bit about this,” he says. “What we’ve learned is that this is a marathon.”

Sunday market suffers

In the last 12 months, from its three printing presses in Hertfordshire, Merseyside and Lanarkshire, News UK printed 2.1 billion newspapers. The company manages its own distribution too – some publishers have to piggyback or collaborate to share vans.

Yet despite News UK’s enthusiasm for its Sunday title, there’s no doubt that the Sunday market is falling faster than the daily market and faces acute challenges.

This is the picture from August this year for Sundays – note the year-on-year change in red:

UK Sunday newspaper circulation and YOY decline, August 2013 (ABC) 

And this is what the daily market looks like – the decline is flatter and there is further to fall:

UK daily newspaper circulation, August 2013 (ABC)

Dinsmore says he now looks after nine platforms – including smartphone and tablet products – and “each of those things has a slightly different role to play”, with print remaining the dominant medium:

“Clearly print is not going to be the monolithic thing it was in the past, although I still think it has a massive part  to play in future, but there have to be other parts to the jigsaw. We’re getting investment to go and find out what those parts are.”

Best media-Tolkien analogy…. of the year 

Tony Parsons joined the Sun on Sunday this month and writes his first column for the paper this weekend. He was sparing his former employer no blows in his assement of Trinity Mirror, displaying a detailed knowledge of Middle Earth in the process:

“I left my previous newspaper after 18 years which is not something I did lightly… The Sun have got a vision for the future. I was struck by the optimism that they have, that the British newspaper industry is going to grow, that’s it’s going to thrive. And if we embrace the technology rather than be afraid of it, then there are great times ahead.

“As much as I loved my old newspaper, it was essentially over and dying. I don’t know if you’ve seen Lord of the Rings, when the Elves have to get on their ship and leave and the time of the Elves is over, it was very much like that at the Daily Mirror. It was either get on the ship with the other Elves or join The Sun.”

It’s also no doubt true that News UK is paying him a lot of money to make the switch and I don’t think it’s indelicate to suggest that may have played a role in the decision, whatever he thinks of Trinity.

Anyway, since it’s Friday, here is the LOTR scene to which Tony refers. What other Tolkienesque characters and scenes represent the state of media today?