— Alex Harrowell (@yorksranter) July 31, 2013
So, the Sun is on the move. This was a bit of a surprise to me, what with News reorganising to separate the UK papers from Sky. You might think the papers look like a cost centre without the TV assets, or that the division is intended for sale as a package. But they’re up to something interesting.
The headline is that the Sun website is going behind a paywall, but this is really beside the point. The core of the offering is a mobile app that provides football highlights and daily deals – the details are at the link – but the really interesting bit is that you have to buy the paper to activate the app. The website is here or there; it’s about the mobile app, the paper, and (as always with Murdoch) the crosspromotion.
The other really interesting thing here is that News knows in some detail who sells copies of the paper, how many, and where. In the UK, newspapers are distributed on a sale-or-return basis. The retailer orders as many papers as they think they need, and bundles up the unsold copies for collection with the morning’s delivery. These are counted, and deducted from the retailer’s bill. If you’ve ever been in a corner shop late at night, you’ll have seen the shopkeeper bundle up, count, and label the returns with the preprinted barcode supplied by the wholesaler.
The point of the exercise is that the newspaper, not the newsagent, takes the risk. This is important because, obviously, the paper cannot sell if it is not on the shelves. If the newsagent gets stuck with unsold copies, they will order fewer papers and take the chance of running out. Alone among British newspapers, The Guardian is distributed on cash terms, which is why it’s so often sold out. I think they consider it unsportsmanlike or something.
So, to shorterise: the sale-and-return distribution model requires the publisher to know all the points of sale. Another feature is that it is a great way to measure the newspaper’s effective circulation in detail, and as the papers are being accounted for, this is subject to the paper’s auditors. You can see why advertisers might like this.
Now, the Sun is going to be getting its readers to type or scan something in the paper into the app. If, as I pointed out on Twitter, this something is specific to the individual papers, it’s possible to identify where the user buys their newspaper. I had some doubts about practicalities in the printing process, and wondered if they intended to do something clever with the PayPoint API or hand out separate inserts to be added by the newsagents.
But today, the question is answered – I was able to examine a pile of the things, and they indeed carry a
9 12-character unique identifier, printed as part of the newspaper. Keen and agile minds will observe that this provides enough entropy to identify the whole print run uniquely, indeed, a print run substantially bigger than even the Daily Mirror‘s 1960s five-million plus. This might mean that it encodes more information than just a serial number, or alternatively that they’ve left space to do so should they want to in the future. Also, it’s not obviously sequential, so you can’t trivially work out the daily print run, although I haven’t made any serious study of this.
(Update): It’s actually 12 characters, in three alphanumeric groups of 4, and all the issues I’ve seen started SS… today. That might be part of a geographic identifier, but it might also be Sunday Sun. Anyway, that gives quite a bit of scope.)
Why is this useful? Well, this gives them insight into close-up neighbourhood geography across the UK. People are likely to buy their newspaper in the same place as they buy plenty of other things, for one. But it’s also a look into the UK’s cash economy. Newspapers have always been sold mostly for cash, anonymously. And the heavy dose of football in the experience points at other ambitions. After all, they can probably work out which is your local pub, and a lot of them have a WiFi hotspot provided by the Sky (ISP) subsidiary The Cloud.
It is probably telling that this comes just after their new “casual” Sky TV offering, something which seems to exist to satisfy demand generated by advertising in the Sun app. Also, Sky TV has always been very good at last-minute ad insertion.
But there’s also a political element here, especially for those of us who fundamentally wish ill to all Murdoch’s business ventures. When the News of the World was rolled into the sea like a sack of waste, as Hunter Thompson said of Richard Nixon’s mortal remains, I was very impressed by the public response, which was either rejoicing, or else, absolute apathy. None of its millions of readers was moved to protest or even to complain. Surprisingly few of them even bother to buy the Sun on Sunday. As a result, I asked on this blog if Sun readers actually exist, in the sense of people who self-identify as such, rather than being labelled by others, in the way that readers of the Guardian, Telegraph, or Mail do in Jamie Kenny’s sense.
In this sense, I think this project is an effort to make Sun readers out of people who happen to read the Sun in the same way as some people happened to consume the News of the World as a weekly kitschburger, a newspaper-style product. The polite way of saying this is “deepening user relationships”.
The really depressing element of this is probably how much of the ad revenue sounds like it’s going to come from gambling. No, it’s not even that, even if the goal of the week starts coming with an editorial soundbite like page 3 did in the Rebekah Wade years. (That said, the business model may well end up being all about cross-media advertising – the Springer papers in Germany seem to be trying to collect as many classified ad outlets as possible.)
The really, really depressing element of this is the increasing degree to which your local pub is being converted into an integrated Murdoch experience. I already resent this (how could I not?) but it’s only going to get worse. Note that the TV ad strapline for all this is “Get Involved”.
(Note: Le Monde‘s South Kensington correspondent Marc Roche argued a few weeks ago that the Sun‘s problems were down to the “disappearance of the blue collars and their replacement by immigrants who can’t speak English”. The Sun does not appear to be basing its strategy on this, to say the least.)