EDIT: The original version of this article included a graph that accidentally misrepresented the current performance of the Telegraph. It’s being amended as you read this to reflect the correct information.

The Sun is scrapping its paywall. It’s news that will be repeatedly analysed over the coming weeks in terms of what it means for the brand, for News UK and for other publishers with paywalls.

So, why has The Sun taken the decision now, just over two years (851 days total) after the wall was erected for the first time? Was it, as has been suggested, because it was chasing social media shares?

Is it the extension of other strategies at News UK? Or is it simple, as we’ve long argued, that putting generic, non-expert news behind paywalls is madness?

To hopefully answer that question, we’ve created an interactive timeline of The Sun’s ill-omened paywall experiment, pulling in content and comment from the Audit Bureau of Circulation, Sky News and the BBC among others to attend to answer that question.

The Timeline

Click the arrow buttons to progress the timeline. You can click on any media to play or zoom in.

Why – and why now?

There’s been speculation that the U-turn was prompted by modern publishers’ universal need for social referrals. Without that boost, which obviously a publisher behind a paywall can’t fully take advantage of, discoverability of a publisher’s content is compromised. 

Speaking at Monetising Media 2015, The Economist’s Robin Raven argued that was the case, and that it was “insane” to use a hard paywall:

“Freemium, in my opinion, is the only way to go. I fundamentally disagree with [The Times’ hard paywall]. I think it’s insane. You need to be able to get your content out there and people need to be able to sample it.” 

And this piece published on econsultancy argues (among other things) that as The Sun’s print advertising revenue slows down, there simply wasn’t enough digital revenue being generated by The Sun’s subscribers to cover the shortfall.

However, writing for the Guardian’s media blog Roy Greenslade that’s something of an oversimplification:

“Although the revenue garnered from the Sun’s £7.99 monthly subscription for website access proved lucrative, it had the effect of locking the paper out from the online national conversation. That was unacceptable for a mass market newspaper that has always relied on the volume of its readership to provide it with political and social clout.”

Instead, he argues that a more prosaic reason for the change is a recent shakeup at the head of the editorial team, which saw paywall stalwarts replaced by, for instance, “a former Mail Online executive who had witnessed the beginnings of that platform’s successful rise to become the world’s leading newspaper website”.

Notably, though, the amount of traffic to The Sun’s site actually fell between August and September of this year, the most recent data to which we have access from the ABC:


While it’s obviously too early to determine whether that’s a trend or whether September is simply a blip, the fact remains that if The Sun is seeking to win back the free audience it lost when it went behind a paywall – most of whom anecdotally migrated to the Mail – it has a long journey ahead of it:


Arguably, however, The Sun’s reversal couldn’t have come at a worse time. Online advertising revenue for news publishers is slowing, as much of the spend is hoovered up by the giants of Facebook and Google. Even if, best case scenario, the growth trends for UK newspapers’ web traffic continues… The Sun is relaunching into a hugely competitive environment, in which everybody and their dogs are scrabbling for the advertising revenue.

Image courtesy of Robin Zebrowski via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.