Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper has ended 44 years of salacious tradition, removing photos of topless women from Page 3, and making them available online only.
The move, which comes after a high-profile campaign led by feminists, signals how Mr Murdoch’s media empire is seeking to improve its image following the hacking scandal.
But it also highlights one of the biggest commercial questions in the British media industry. Can The Sun, the country’s most popular print newspaper, convince readers to pay for its content online?
Only 225,000 people have a digital subscription to The Sun — compared with the paper’s daily print circulation of 1.9m. As audiences move online, The Sun is gaining fewer than two digital subscribers for every three print copies lost.
By adding topless women to its exclusively online mix the tabloid could attract more of its core audience — including the 42,000 people who follow Page 3’s official Twitter account.
“They clearly think it’s going to have some positive effect. Otherwise they wouldn’t bother setting up the new online access,” said Thomas Caldecott, an analyst at Enders Analysis.
The Sun currently offers digital subscribers access to Premier League football highlights, acquired by parent company News UK for a reported £20m, as well as video exclusives.
“They’ve got to have the right menu for young men who like football,” said one former media executive. “That’s a pretty short list.”
News UK declined to comment.
Page 3 “might play a role in taking some of its traditional readership online”, said Mr Caldecott. “But there’s so much content like that online, you’d have to be pretty brand-loyal to start paying for The Sun based on Page 3.”
Any online gains would have to be balanced against the short-term costs of lost print sales and advertising. The Sun’s finances have already worsened, with pre-tax losses of £124m during the past two financial years, reflecting £190m of legal costs related to phone-hacking. Turnover fell by nearly £30m in the year ending June 2014, because of the decline in print advertising and sales.
“If you start to lose five to 10 per cent of circulation [because of the loss of Page 3], that’s big bucks,” said the former media executive. “They reserve the right to put it back in.”
However, Page 3’s effect on circulation may be insignificant. “There’s been a massive decline in demand for that kind of content in print,” Mr Caldecott said, pointing to the demise of lads magazine Nuts, which closed last year.
The Sun’s biggest draws are “celebrity content and sport”, he added. According to the National Readership Survey, about 40 per cent of the paper’s readers are women.
Even so, publishing Page 3 online might have benefits for the tabloid — helping to generate “kiss and tell” stories, for example. “There might be a value in The Sun maintaining relationships with the agencies that supply models for Page 3,” said Tim Luckhurst, a professor of journalism at Kent university.
But the bigger prize for Mr Murdoch would be a surge in The Sun’s paying online audience.
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