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Is a paper's online readership really "good for the ego" but nothing else?

News UK boss Mike Darcey thinks so.

Getting your news the traditional way, in a silly hat. Photograph: Getty Images

News UK boss Mike Darcey today condemned the vast online readership numbers claimed by the likes of Mail Online and Guardian.co.uk as "good for the ego" and not much else.

He spoke out as his flagship title, The Sun, goes behind an online paywall as of 1 August. Darcey has a point.

The explosion in online readership of UK media titles has coincided with an unprecedentedly severe media slump which is now five years old.

So for the two leading free-to-air national newspapers online – the Mail and Guardian – we won’t know for sure whether they have a digital business until the economy finally picks up. But as it stands, all those online eyeballs have yet to translate into a sustainable business model.

Both Guardian News and Media and Mail Online are believed to make between £40m and £50m from the digital sides of their businesses.

In June, Mail Online attracted 8.2m "unique browsers" per day globally, and The Guardian 4.6m (according to ABC).

For Mail Online the digital income is growing fast, but it is still tiny compared with combined print and digital turnover of around £600m a year.

For Guardian News and Media that digital income needs to be seen in the context of annual costs of around £240m, and a loss in the year to April 2012 of £44.2m.

Both sites currently appear to be wedded to the free online model. If they are going to eschew the paywall, they are going to have to come up with a plan B – and do so pretty quickly.

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette. You can follow him on twitter at @domponsford.