Interview: ‘No Decision’ On Sun Paywall In Absence Of NOTW

News Of The World’s closure deprived News International of data on which it could have based a decision to introduce digital fees at the UK’s most popular newspaper.

News Of The World relaunched on the web and iPad for £1.99 a month in September 2010, including with SMS payment – ten months before it was shut amid the phone hacking scandal.

“One of my personal frustrations is we were about to roll out some tests and changes, to switch some of the levers to see how we could actually engage that audience,” News International’s digital product director Nick Bell told me in a Q&A at Wednesday’s Digital Content Monetisation Europe conference.

“We started allowing First Click Free. We were trialling all of those elements. The News Of The World was a great place to do that. It was a brand that was innovative. We learned a huge amount. it’s a shame for us that we didn’t have a chance to see some of the results of tests that were carried out.

“What it proved was that people, even in the red-top space, are willing to pay.” Bell did not quantify NOTW’s digital take-up at the time.

In the meantime, the Sun Online website has notably not joined its deceased stablemate nor its higher-brow Times brethren in implementing news fees dictated by Rupert Murdoch late in 2009. Everything appears to be in a holding pattern. But NOTW may nevertheless prove useful.

“No direct decision has been made around a paywall for The Sun,” Bell told me. “There’s a lot of learnings we can take from the News Of The World. One thing we did learn was that it’s very difficult to have a one-day proposition – you’re constantly trying to recruit that audience on a Sunday. If you look at The Times and Sunday Times, although they’re separate brands, you get access to both.”

News International has introduced tablet and mobile subscriptions of £4.99 per month for The Sun’s apps, but the mature Sun Online website has not got the same kind of refresh that NOTW’s underlying web platform did.

The Sun is going to be an area of investment for us over the coming months and years,” Bell told me. “We’re really keen to listen to our customers and have a human-centric approach to the designs that go out there.

“News International traditionally took a very one-man view to these things, somebody would come up witha design and that’s what would get rolled out if the editor approved. We now are going through a far more user-centred design approach. That will hopefully mean some of the stuff we come out with will be far more interesting, exiting and relevant.

“Sun Bingo is hugely successful, Dream Team has over a million players – these are brand extensions which do very well for The Sun and people are willing to pay for those in their millions.