Can newspapers turn innovation into hard cash?

The Sun became the most popular UK newspaper online for the first time in February, registering an eye-watering 27.3 million unique users, according to ABCe figures.

Can newspapers turn innovation into hard cash?
Can newspapers turn innovation into hard cash?

The site, which includes sister title News of the World, benefited from high-profile celebrity stories such as Jade Goody's illness and classic tabloid fare such as 13-year-old Alfie Patten and the "Is he/isn't he the father?" tale.

Its unique users were up by five million compared to January and more than doubled year on year. By anyone's standards, the traffic attracted by UK national newspaper brands is impressive, although there is always the caveat that between 50% and 75% of it typically comes from overseas - only 8.3 million of The Sun's traffic is of UK origin, for example.

The Sun is looking to build on its success with a newly constructed £1m TV and radio studio at Wapping, which goes live with its first radio show, the Jon Gaunt-fronted Sun Talk, on Monday, 21 April, featuring Conservative Party leader David Cameron as its first guest. The plan is for News International journalists to generate audio and video content across all its titles and participate in live broadcasts.

However, the acid test will be the amount of income generated, for if newspapers are to have a long-term future, they must start making money out of their massive online audiences. For example, it is understood headline sponsorship of Jon Gaunt's Sun Talk was on offer for just £60,000, which is hardly going to replace the display and classified ad revenue haemorrhaging from NI's print coffers.

Other pertinent questions include: is overseas traffic any use to advertisers and, by extension, media owners? Can consumers be persuaded to pay for premium content, such as dating, mobile updates or fantasy football? Is traffic generated by clever search engine optimisation delivering audiences that are at all relevant to newspaper brands and their advertisers?

It's early days and it makes a change to be talking about positive and proactive developments when it comes to newspaper companies - for which The Sun should be applauded - but, ultimately, no one has yet crossed the threshold and turned innovation into hard cash.

Steve Barrett is editor of Media Week, steve.barrett@haymarket.com, www.mediaweek.co.uk/stevebarrettblog

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