Once synonymous with the ‘white van man’, the Sun's biggest audience is now women

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

They once seemed as inseparable as blood brothers but the Sun’s deep association with “white van man” is passing and a typical reader of Britain’s biggest-selling news brand is now more likely to be a woman.

The emergence of the popular title from behind a digital paywall 20 months ago has coincided with a rise in news consumption on mobile. The Sun has enjoyed unprecedented growth, propelled by its coverage of showbiz news, which has also contributed to a marked shift in its audience demographics.

The Sun's online audience grew 59% last year. It has overhauled its old rival the Mirror and, within the UK, it is second only to Mail Online. Of its 5.35 million daily unique browsers, a remarkable 91% come via mobile, more than any other UK news brand. It means the contemporary Sun audience looks different from the one that many imagine, with 51% of readers being female, 42% being aged between 15 and 34, and 14% being of ethnic minority origin.

White van man gives way as mobile drives traffic

The concept of white van man emerged exactly 20 years ago in a headline in the Sun’s News UK sister paper, the Sunday Times. The Sun was happy to embrace these ubiquitous figures of the modern British highway and the idea that a copy of the red top was an essential feature on any white van’s dashboard. At the turn of the century, there was even a regular white van man column in the tabloid, “A view of Britain from inside the cab”, where drivers such as Daniel from Ealing might hold forth on such pressing issues as: “The possibility that Teletubby Tinky Winky and other children’s TV stars are gay.”

Today’s Sun readers arrive on their smartphones, typically via the Google-backed AMP carousel, where last night’s headlines concerned Katie Price’s “amazing legs” and reality TV star Gemma Collins storming off set in a “blazing row”. The Sun recently ordered its writers to cut headlines to 90 characters to make them more mobile friendly.

The Murdoch title will next month unveil a new app which will compound these changes and, it is intended, strengthen relationships with this growing mobile audience.

This expansion and transformation of the Sun’s reach has been primarily driven by Keith Poole, the Sun digital editor, who arrived at News UK from Mail Online in January 2016, only weeks after the paywall had come down. The strategic decision in 2013 to require a subscription for digital access to Sun content might have protected the paid circulation of the newspaper but it had major consequences for the reach and profile of a mass market brand with a particularly high reputation for its coverage of entertainment news and sport.

The Sun’s absence from the digital celebrity news space left a vacuum which was eagerly filled by its rivals; the paparazzi sold their wares to the Mail Online’s new sidebar of shame, while the Mirror enjoyed a resurgence.

But those two and a half years in digital obscurity did not prove an irredeemable handicap. Backed by News UK’s not inconsiderable resources, the Sun is very much back in the race.

“If you look at our audience breakdown, we have gained a new audience for the Sun online…the majority of whom are women,” says Poole. “[We are] very large in the 18-34 category which you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the newspaper as a whole.”

Adapting to audience demand

In explaining the Sun’s appeal to women, he says: “I think that largely goes towards our strength in TV and showbiz, particularly with young women. We do do a lot of female-focused features and stories now.”

The showbiz coverage is supported by an emerging strength in parenting-based content. Fabulous, the women’s supplement distributed with the Sun on Sunday paper, also exists as a newly relaunched vertical with pride of place in the Sun’s digital offering. “We have a huge following, particularly on Facebook, for our fashion stories, and on shopping and how to spend your money,” Poole says. “It’s an audience that have found us rather than [one that] we have gone and found in a deliberate and calculated manner.”

The Sun’s online strategy has been based on adapting to audience demand. “We started being really data-driven in terms of the story choices and editorial calls we make, and the things that our audience were interested in we focused upon.”

He claims that the Sun now “owns” key territories in the UK online news market, such as homegrown television and showbiz. The Sun claims 10.7 million monthly readers for its celebrity gossip stories and 12.9 million a month for its coverage of TV shows. Unlike some rivals – the Mail has positioned several dozen entertainment writers on America’s West Coast – the Sun is laser-focused on a domestic audience. “We haven’t gone for the global expansion that others have done,” Poole observes.

The Sun has a “very large digital showbiz team”, but its priority is not Hollywood but UK soaps and reality TV shows. “[ITV show] Love Island did appear in the paper eventually but we were there from the beginning. It was a huge traffic driver for us because we hit upon this phenomenon really quickly because of the figures we were seeing for readers consuming these stories. We decided to cover everything on Love Island and start breaking loads of exclusives.”

High-profile entertainment journalists such as Dan Wootton produce celebrity video content for the online team, as well as performing a marquee role on the print edition. Sales of the newspaper, edited by Tony Gallagher, are at 1,564,249 (lifted by growing free bulk distribution of 117,839).

A hard copy of the Sun is the number one selling fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) product in Tesco, with 40% of newspaper buyers in that supermarket choosing to buy just that one title. Some spontaneous purchasers might have developed their Sun habit on their mobiles.

Mobile first, desktop later

The fact that the Sun had so little digital scale behind the paywall has meant that, unlike some other publishers, it has not been challenged by transitioning a desktop audience to mobile. “We haven’t had to make technical compromises along the way,” says Poole. “We can see how it looks on the mobile first and think about the desktop later.”

Being one of the original publishers on Snapchat Discover has also been critical in sharpening the Sun’s visual presentation for a mobile audience. Its Snapchat audience is “much, much younger and majority female”, says Poole. “Some of the skills that we have learned in producing that channel – things like motion graphics, after effects, vertical video – have helped us think about how people want to consume news on a mobile phone.”

It will take some of that learning into the new app, which will feature vertical video presentation of what the Sun considers to be the “10 most important stories” of the moment. Users will be able to personalise the app to receive alerts of news on their favourite TV shows and football teams.

Having spent 20 months on scaling its UK users, Poole hopes the app will be a “staging post” to “convert them into a much more engaged audience loyally – who come to us multiple times a day”.

None of the above is to suggest that the Sun is no longer interested in catering to the large minority of its audience that is male.

The paper’s long-established credentials in football coverage are starting to be replicated in digital traffic, with the help of Dreamteam (which is the UK’s largest fantasy football league with 1.6 million players, 45% of them under 30), and a partnership with talkSPORT, which is now owned by News UK.

Of course plenty of Dreamteam players and football readers will be women. Poole says he has “other plans” for male-focused content besides football. “There are still 49% men” in the Sun’s audience, he notes. And some of them even drive white vans.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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