According to the latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations for November, the Saturday edition of the Daily Mail sold on average 2,474,439 compared with 2,453,981 for The Sun newspaper.
It represents the first time the mid-market Daily Mail has sold more Saturday copies than The Sun for an entire month, and is all the more poignant coming in the lucrative weeks before Christmas when the Saturday editions are full of retail advertisers.
The historic toppling was quickly seized upon by executives at Daily Mail & General Trust, with Roland Agambar, DMG Media’s chief marketing officer, crediting "the strength of the Mail brand, the success of our loyalty strategy and the advantage of continued editorial and commercial investment".
It comes four months after News UK erected a paywall around The Sun’s website, a move many expected to bolster print sales as it means the tabloid’s content is no longer available for free on the internet.
The Sun is now focused on total paid sales
Talking to Media Week, Darcey was keen to downplay the significance of a few Saturday sales in November. He said The Sun is now aligned to the same approach The Times has had for the past three years, where the "total paid audience" has become its primary measure of success.
The Sun has attracted 117,000 paying subscribers to its £2-a-week digital service Sun+ since charging for digital content from 1 August. This represents a 40% reduction in the sum of print cover prices during a week, but Darcey says savings in production and distribution result in a "pretty solid digital price point".
He said: "The thing I’m focused on is total paid sales. How they [readers] sort themselves out between print and digital is really up to them. My job is to create products and set prices and advertising opportunities such that I’m relatively relaxed about the choices that they will make through time."
It should be noted The Sun remained the biggest-selling UK newspaper across six days in November, selling an average 2,089,752 copies compared to the Daily Mail's 1,755,308. The Daily Mail's headline figure also includes 91,277 bulks (copies sold to airports, hotels etc). The Sun does not distribute bulks.
Darcey likened The Sun’s commercial proposition to the one agencies are being told about stablemate The Times, with digital advertisers able to tap into "a much more engaged world, which is much more akin to the print environment". It is hoped advertisers would be satisfied if any drops in print circulation are made up for with the new digital audiences. He said: "We’re not selling you a print ad, we’re selling you an ad in the Times."
The biggest single group of subscribers (30%) are said to be 25 to 34 year olds, and almost half (47%) of all sign-ups are coming via mobile.
News UK has no intention to be digital-first
However, while restructuring the business around a platform agnostic approach to quality content, News UK’s chief executive was keen to stress the ambition is not to force people away from print.
"Readers will migrate at the rate they want to migrate," he said. "I don’t think it is for us to be telling customers what to do. You’re not seeing me out there saying ‘digital-first’ like some other publishers are.
"My philosophy is precisely the opposite of that. Our job is to create a compelling customer proposition and to make it available as very best we can in all the relevant distribution formats. It’s then for the customer to decide where they want to be; and different people are ready to do different things at different points in time."
Since Darcey joined the publisher from BSkyB last December, he has set about acquiring "premium content" in the form of digital sports video rights to help bolster the Sun's online offering.
In January, News UK landed a deal for Premier League internet and mobile highlights – valued in the region of £30 million, followed by deals for the FA Cup rights, Champions League and Europa League games.
But he is keen to stress these unique multi-million pound digital deals were not a digital-only benefit. Of the 117,000 new subscribers to The Sun since August, more than 15,000 are accessing the Sun+ digital package through their daily purchase of the paper.
He said: "When we got into [Sun+] Goals, people tended to think that’s a digital proposition, so what’s the first thing we did? We created the print+ mechanic, so that people who were saying to us, ‘actually I’m pretty happy buying the paper and I want to keep buying the paper’, we’re saying ‘that’s a good point and you’re a great customer’.
"We’re not telling you you have to move and stop buying the paper in order to get [Sun+] Goals. We’ve worked very hard to be as neutral as we can be."Total paid sales of all News UK titles, which includes The Times and The Sunday Times as well as The Sun, are now reported to average 2.75 million a day, with a growing number having an ongoing relationship with one of the titles as regular subscribers.
The significance of the shift is not lost on The Sun’s editor, David Dinsmore, who reminded the near 50 year old brand has gone from a world where it never had subscribers – people used to go into a newsagents and buy The Sun, but not subscribe – into already having 117,000 people.
The editor also recalls how in 2009 only about 2% of the tabloid’s readers had smartphones, this year that figures now stands at 70% and growing.
He said: "No one else has sought to charge for digital access to a mass audience newspaper, and, though it’s early days, we are encouraged by the strong achievement for The Sun. After years of steady decline across our industry, it is fantastic to see new readers embracing our great paper on new platforms and loyal Sun supporters locking in to an ongoing and deeper relationship with us."
'Telegraph's model is unsustainable'
Darcey is convinced the combination of "world class journalism, new digital content, and growing focus on customer care is a compelling mix", and, in these uncertain times, is one that could secure a future for news.
Turning his attention to rival the Telegraph, which launched a metered paywall site this year, Darcey is unconvinced. Telegraph.co.uk currently allows individual browsers to view 20 articles per month before being asked to pay £1.99 per month for web and smartphone access, or £9.99 a month to add tablets and print access as well.
"I think it’s just dodging the question really," admits Darcey. "It’s just deferring the moment when you have to actually decide are we paid for or are we free? I think everybody knows you can invade it [Telegraph paywall] with the greatest of ease.
"There’s no registration involved, you can simply come in from different places... I think they’re in a slightly confused place myself. They’ve got a paid-for in print, they’ve got a paid-for tablet proposition, but they’re still giving it away on the internet. Eventually that starts to become unsustainable and I think the metered paywall is a non-answer to that."
One year into his role at a reinvigorated News UK, Darcey's sights are firmly set on his vision of the future of the company. He said: "The paid-for model is firmly established and working well at the Times and Sunday Times and is now off to a great start at The Sun, with much more to come."AUTOFEED INTERACTIVE DATA