Tablet the bitter pill that cured paper’s print woes

Jul 03, 2024 at 12:38 pm by admin

It’s most of a decade since Future Forum delegates gathered in Sydney in preparation for the anticipated death of their print newspapers.

Jean-Marc De Jonghe’s presentation on La Presse’s closure of its weekday editions was a ‘must-hear’ event for delegates, given that organisers the then NewsMediaWorks had a reputation for preparing executives for what they might expect in the coming year… and making them feel good about it.

And it did. For months afterwards, I still had the good-looking tablet app from Quebec’s LaPresse on my then relatively-new iPad, a reference work for its time.

Interestingly, Greg Hywood, then chief executive of Fairfax Media, was saying it was not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’ The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald would cut weekday print editions… yet current owner Nine Entertainment has yet to do so. If other publishers including News Corp Australia, were having similar thoughts, they were keeping them to themselves.

The Montreal, Canada, based French-language daily had just announced that after 131 years of publishing it would cease printing weekday editions and move daily content to a tablet app – reported to have cost $40 million to create – with the cutting of 158 jobs.

One of the highlights of WAN-Ifra’s World News Media Congress in May was deputy publisher and vice-president Francois Cardinale’s review of the success of its bold plan, leading to the shutdown of print editions within five years. Transition to a digital-only model by 2018 was accompanied by a move to a non-profit model relying mainly on advertising and donations for revenue, and in the context of the failure of Rupert Murdoch’s ‘The Daily’ model at around the same time.

And yes it worked: Cardinale says La Presse now boasts Montreal’s largest newsroom and reaches 60 per cent of Quebec’s adult population, with the tablet edition being particularly popular. It’s profitable, with a strong reserve fund.

The thought inevitably lingers that the writing is still on the wall for print publishing’s survivors, although many elements make Quebec a special case. Cardinale emphasised that that their success was due to a firm commitment to abandoning print entirely, unlike other ventures such as the Toronto Star, which maintained both print and digital options, and advised other publishers to “plan and prepare for a complete digital transition without offering a choice between print and digital” to ensure survival and success in the evolving media landscape.

La Presse, founded in 1884, was linking its future to Apple’s iPad, launched only a few years before; elsewhere, newspaper websites were still mostly free to use and read. It would first, in 2016, cut back to Saturday-only editions, and the following year quit print altogether.

Today’s La Presse is fully digital, running a team of about 220 journalists, and is North America’s largest independent French language newsroom. Cardinale explains the unusual situation in which the province of Quebec is in effect, a nation, in which they report local, regional, national and international news, “completely free for business reasons, as well as social reasons.

“We believe that information is a public asset that must be accessible to everyone, not only to those who can afford it, afford subscriptions, or afford to cross paywalls.”

Donations have become an important revenue source – dating from the first website, which included a donation tab – and Cardinale says La Presse is proudly profitable, “even double-digit profits”, making it possible to grow reserve funds for rainy days.

“So it's been years of a hard transformation, but one that we are proud of and that is completed today,” he told congress delegates.

Keys include the publisher’s transition to non-profit status (with its tax-credit implications); in 2023, they collected CA$ 8 million (about A$8.6 million) from about 60,000 donors.

-three-quarters of revenue still comes of advertising, with the tablet edition pulling higher CPM rates than print;

-the La Presse app is “unique” because it is still a morning daily edition, with a front page and with sections and games. Cardinale describes it as “our North Star”, with about 50 million pages viewed in a month on the website, and 50 million on the mobile app, but 500 million page views each month for the tablet edition.

“Time is also much longer for the tablet edition, an average of 40 minutes on weekdays, and in the weekends, it’s 50 minutes, and a couple of Saturdays ago, we hit 57 minutes of time spent average.

“And how does it compare with print? Well, today the tablet edition, is accessed by one-and-a-half times more readers than our highest print run in 1970.

“That is the measure of success.”

Not that there weren’t a lot of hurdles to overcome, Cardinale said, “on the inside and outside”. By way of example, he pointed to the Toronto Star’s launch and closure of a tablet app after a $23 million investment, noting that the English-language publication had kept its print edition. “They gave the choice to the readers and when you give the choice, people will still prefer paper,” he said. I would also prefer paper today. So the conclusion is that you have to have a plan. And you have to stick to the plan.

“You can't offer the readers a choice.”

Even back in 2013, that had been the plan: “Because of the decrease of newspaper subscriptions, we saw it coming – we didn't want to be the last one to transform, and I think that it's harder today than it was ten years ago,” he told the Copenhagen audience.

“And we saw that the readership of the paper was aging very rapidly so, we had a lot of talks with advertisers. They wanted to reach people around 30 to 50 years old. And that was not the place where the print was.”

Much has changed in the decade since La Presse took that decision, and it would take a bold decision to replicate it in today’s much-changed market. Hywood’s successor has other things on his mind at the moment, but it could be worth a thought! Like La Presse – which used Transcontinental – he doesn’t have a physical commitment to print.

Peter Coleman

Sections: Digital business


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