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May 29, 2024 @ World News Media Congress

Ceasing print. The bold and successful story of Canadian La Presse

We've heard it many times. Print readers are getting older. The new loyal paying readers are digital only. The number of print days is going down. Time is counting for print. How long can the industry afford to keep the presses going? One of few examples that has the full transformation from print to digital behind them is LA Presse i Quebec, Canada. It is a fascinating case story based on a successful strategy that was first launched with a tablet edition eleven years ago and led to a final close down of its print editions only after five years. Would you dare to switch off the presses completely?

 

This article is based on a presentation and Q&A-session at the "Innovate Local" seminar at the WAN-IFRA World News Media Congress in Copenhagen, Denmark, on May 29th, 2024.

 

Presented by François Cardinal, Deputy Publisher and Vice-President, La Presse, Canada. Cardinale has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years in major Quebec dailies as a reporter, columnist and editor-in-chief. He is the recipient of multiple National Newspaper Awards, as well as several distinctions.

By Niklas Jonason (n.jonason@wan-ifra.org)

Article summary

In 2013, La Presse, a French-speaking daily newspaper in Quebec, took a bold step by launching La Presse+, an iPad-only edition, diverging from the conventional print and e-paper formats. This decision came amidst the failure of similar ventures like Rupert Murdoch's "The Daily." La Presse+ was launched with substantial resources and aimed to replace the print edition in phases, fully transitioning to a digital-only model by 2018. This transition included becoming a non-profit organization, relying mainly on advertising and donations for revenue.


Today, La Presse stands as a successful fully digital, free-access media outlet, boasting Montreal's largest newsroom and significant reader engagement. They reach 60% of Quebec's adult population, with their tablet edition being particularly popular. The digital transformation involved significant internal changes, including layoffs and a shift in journalistic practices, but has resulted in profitability and a strong reserve fund.


Cardinale emphasizes that their success was due to a firm commitment to abandoning print entirely, unlike other ventures like the Toronto Star, which maintained both print and digital options. He advises 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.

Background: La Presse and its bet in 2013

We remember, those of us that were in the industry in 2013, eleven years ago, when the news came out in the industry press. It is a fascinating story. The Canadian and french speaking daily newspaper of the Quebec-region with its main news desk in Montreal, La Presse founded in 1884, launched its new La Presse+ edition for Apple iPad. The iPad had been launched in 2010 by Steve Jobs on a stage somewhere in California just three years earlier. Rupert Murdoch had introduced "The Daily", also made only for the Apple iPad, just shortly after Apples launch and then quickly closed it in the end of 2012, after less than 2 years and just some months before the launch of La Presse+. There were not many other newspapers publishers in the world betting on iPad after Murdochs closure, neither nationals and nor local or regionals.

At this time most newspaper sites were free to use and read, just as La Presse+ on iPad. Except for using the iPad platform, three things made La Presse+ contrarian :

  • The resources behind the La Press+ on iPad were substantial. It has been said that it took the team at La Presse three years and US$40 million of expenses to develop its first iPad edition.

  • The plan was early on to replace the print product, although in phases. In 2016, only two years after the launch of La Presse+, print was restricted to Saturdays and shortly thereafter, on december 31:st in 2017, the last newspaper was printed.

  • And with the free La Press+ the business modell was changed completely, from a paid printed daily newspaper to a free daily digital edition with advertising as the only revenue (except for donations).

 

All this was in every aspect bold.  What were they thinking? And how did it go?

2024: Standing strong as a non profit digital operation

Today life after print is on the agenda of any newspaper on this planet. Some are lowering the number of print days relying instead on the e-paper, that is a replica of the printed product on a display screen. This was not the vision of La Presse in 2013. It was not build on e-paper. Their vision was a new product. The management had an early very visionary plan of quickly replacing print with a completely new fresh approach of presenting news and, in addition to that, a completely new business concept. 


At the stage of the Innovate Local session on the WAN-IFRA Congress in Copenhagen in the end of May, the deputy publisher and vice president of La Presse, Francois Cardinale, gave us an update of their case. 


Today La Presse is a fully digital media operation and Montreal's largest news media outlet, as well as the largest independent French language newsroom in North America, with about 220 journalists. 
Cardinale describes:
- "We  report on local, regional, national and international news. You could say that we are a local media. That's why we are here today. But, for the anecdote; in Quebec, we like to say that we are a national newspaper; the nation being the province of Quebec. I'm not here to have a debate on the political, scene of Quebec. Don't worry. We are, after all, a general media outlet, but also, I would say a "UMO", a kind of Unidentified Media Object. I use the term "UMO" for three reasons:
1. We are a legacy media, however we are completely free.
2. We are a not-profit organization (since the same year they ceased print)
3. Our flagship product is a tablet edition
This makes us kind of weird or if you prefer, unique."

From paid to free journalism

Cardinale describes that the mission is the same: to provide quality journalism. However the platforms and content are free and accessible to all and he continues.


- "And the content is 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."


As the products of La Presse got completely digital and available for free, the organisation also transformed, into a not-for-profit organization which means that an important source of revenue is donations. "And we are proud to say that we are profitable, even double digits profits (in %), for the last consecutive years which makes it possible to grow reserve funds for rainy days, each year. So it's been years of a hard transformation, but one that we are proud of and that is completed today."

Converting to a non-profit organisation

The conversion to a non-profit organisation was an important part of the transformation, Cardinale argues:
- "It was part of the whole picture. In parallell with our transformation process there were talk in Canada about tax credits. However they didn't want to give tax credits to big, powerful companies like our previous owners Power Corporation or such as Thomson Group, or even a foundation. Instead we made the bet that being a non for profit would help us to get some tax credits and convince government that it was a good idea. With that we could also diversify our revenue, to have to collect donations. It was a big bet at the time because the survival of medias weren't like a cause at the time. But we put it on the table. We had some expectations, but today it's way ahead of what we expected. In 2023, we collect, CA$ 8 million (approximately € 5,5 m or $6 m) in donations only from readers. So it turns out that people are there to support us even now when we have been profitable for the last four years. It was not about our survival. They are still paying."

 

 

- "One interesting thing is that before the transformation, about
60 000 people were ready to pay. We knew that, this level of revenue was insufficient to fund the organisation, so we needed advertising as a main source. And today we have about 60 000 donors. So those who were paying for the subscription before, are also paying today and almost the same amount each year. However 75% of our revenues come from advertising still today." Maybe thanks to its bold decision to stop print, CPM-prices of ads in the tablet edition quickly surpassed the corresponding CPM-prices of ads in print.

The unique features of the flagship product

Today La Presse "has a website and, of course, a mobile app. The flagship is still the daily tablet app which today exist for both iPad and Android." and Cardinale continues:
- "The thing that makes the tablet app unique is the fact that it's still a morning daily edition (distributed 5.30 in the morning) with a front page and with sections and games. It's a closed edition, however with more pictures than in print, different designs, interactivity, videos, audio extracts, etc. We say that the tablet app is our flagship because it has the most depth, the best curation, but also the most engagement from readers." 


The mobile is growing in traffic, of course, however there are so much more articles viewed on the tablet. And the engagement level is really the measure of success;
- "It's our North star. To give you an idea, we can have about 50 million pages viewed in a month on the website, 50 million on the mobile app, however 500 million page views each month for the tablet edition. Also the time spent is much monger for the tablet edition, in average, it's 40 minutes on weekdays and in the weekends, it's, 50 minutes. 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 is accessed by 1.5 times more readers than our highest print run in 1970". Cardinale concludes:"That is the measure of success."

In total, La Presse reach 4 million readers each month. In Quebec its universe, there are only 8 million people which means that La Presse reach 60% of Quebec's adult population. "A big part of Quebec".
The Tablet-editions for iPad and Android has a number of unique features. Cardinal describes with enthusiasm: "We offer a lot of, graphic design, videos, graphics, interactivity and so on which makes our storytelling quite compelling. We also win design awards because of those screens. We also have long articles. We didn't stop those. Journalists love them, so we we still have them and readers like them, too. We have a lot of ""explainers" because our graphic team is quite huge."

The mobile is growing in traffic, of course, however there are so much more articles viewed on the tablet. And the engagement level is really the measure of success;

- "It's our North star. To give you an idea, we can have about 50 million pages viewed in a month on the website, 50 million on the mobile app, however 500 million page views each month for the tablet edition. Also the time spent is much monger for the tablet edition, in average, it's 40 minutes on weekdays and in the weekends, it's, 50 minutes. 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 is accessed by 1.5 times more readers than our highest print run in 1970". Cardinale concludes: "That is the measure of success."

In total, La Presse reach 4 million readers each month. In Quebec its universe, there are only 8 million people which means that La Presse reach 60% of Quebec's adult population. "A big part of Quebec".

 

The Tablet-editions for iPad and Android has a number of unique features. Cardinal describes with enthusiasm: "We offer a lot of, graphic design, videos, graphics, interactivity and so on which makes our storytelling quite compelling. We also win design awards because of those screens. We also have long articles. We didn't stop those. Journalists love them, so we we still have them and readers like them, too. We have a lot of ""explainers" because our graphic team is quite

 huge."

The two biggest hurdles

For those publishers that are considering to do the the same switch as La Presse did, that is to stop printing and instead offer a flagship tablet version, Cardinale gave an outline of the biggest challenges and hurdles you may confront.

-"Well, there there were a lot of hurdles. Yes. Inside and outside. On the outside our readers are people of habits. So we had to be there for them. We had to accompany them all the way. When we announced the tablet edition, it was clear that the end of the paper was coming. We started with ending of the weekday, print edition, and after two years, we ended the Saturday-edition too. So people knew that it was coming. They had time, but it was a firm decision. They had time to buy a tablet and get familiar with it. The readers knew that decision to stop print was a firm statement, and we stuck with it. So it worked. On the inside, the working conditions for journalists changed a lot.  There is not a single, employee or function that wasn't completely transformed in one way or another. So the transformation was hard on the inside. There were a lot of layoffs, too. And in addition it also took a lot of investments to develop the actual La Press+ app, it's an 100% in-house developed  application. So, we had to force readers on the tablet, and we knew that we had to force journalists to write for another kind of edition. Yeah, absolutely. is was challenging and tough both on the outside and the inside" .

"Support La Presse: Make a donation

The opening first display screen of the "La Presse" web site:
: "Support La Presse: Make a donation."

The advice: Follow us, be bold and leave print behind

Answering to the question of what advice he would give to other publishers who are thinking about what to do to get all digital, Mr Cardinale answered with the a case story from another Canadian newspaper in Toronto. To really understand Cardinales important point about the Toronto Star case we need a background: Inspired by La Presse, the dominating news site in Canada, the Toronto Star, decided to offer its readers a similar tablet app on the same platform. The product was supported by advertising and entirely free to readers. However, only after two years and after investing $ 23 m (according to Niemanlab.org), Toronto Star decided to abandon the app. The shutdown was accompanied by layoffs. It was said that “the tablet’s monthly audience peaked at 80,000 unique readers, a small percentage of the Star’s monthly online readership, which hovered around 550,000 in the Greater Toronto Area alone at the time.” It had originally aimed to be at 180,000 daily users by the end of 2016; it was at only 26,000 by March of 2016. The official motivation of the shut down of the app was "“We need to simplify our business and having three downloadable apps, namely a tablet app, a mobile app and PDF, confuses consumers and is resource intensive, complex and costly. Having just two apps will simplify this”

 

Coming back to Cardinale describing the Toronto case:
- "Of course it's always very different from one company to another. I can even give the example of the Toronto Star. It's the equivalent of La Presse and the Anglo side in Canada. And they bought our application at the time. However, they kept the paper version and the tablet version together. So they gave the choice to the readers and when you give the choice, people will still prefer paper. 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 you can't offer the readers a choice. You have to gradually prepare your readers. So what will be hard for publishing companies is waiting maybe a couple of years from now. It will be about survival. They have to plan this switch and tell their readers 2, 3, 4 or 5 years in advance that they will end the printed paper one day and that they will have to go elsewhere. So you have to prepare inside and outside and there will be a lot of hurdles. Our situation today looks nice, however it has been a marathon. It was very tough. One of the key lessons that we kept from all this, is that you can not try to save the paper while transforming digitally. It's one or the other. If you make the leap, you have to do it fully." 

 

Also Cordinale reflected of their thinking in 2013 and today.
- "The tablet, you know, was something we easily decided to do. However, new was, the stopping of printing. I am sure you´re question is if that part really was part of first tablet plan. The answer is really: Yes, it was and is still. It was it was a plan, all the way, from the start, because of two reasons."

 

  • "We had the decrease, of newspaper subscriptions, we saw it coming. We knew that, 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.

  •  ...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."


So the conclusion was, with the tablet edition, we thought that we can have the engagement that we had in the paper, but on another platform, a digital one."

Today the situation  for many local news publishers look different and a bit more optimistic than above. However that builds, in most cases, of the fact that readers of the e-paper, lets admit, is a facsimil copy of the printed newspaper. Again: It is inspiring to conclude that La Presse has that behind them!

A special and perhaps an odd case, but still a case to learn from

Its is true, as Cardinals hints, that La Presse is not a typical local news media. It has local sections, but it also has important national and international sections. It is more something like The Guardian in the UK than the Boston Globe. More of Le Monde than Ouest France. However the La Presse case, gives examples of brave and bold decisions that were made and finally worked out well that should inspire leaders of local news media. And probably most inspiring is its full transformation made in a relatively short period of time, although difficult. Today they find themselves in a strong position thanks to the firm and full transformation to digital. We think that the most important point is the fact of being profitable and having the freedom that La Presse has without print! They are free to design their own future!

So what about local and regional news in La Presse? Yes they have it. La Presse is based in Montreal and it is a Montreal newspaper. However, the local and regional is not the first things that meats the eye when scanning its menus in its different editions. It is after a click or two that "Montreal" and "Regional" turns up as options in the user interfaces. Actually focusing on Montreal, national and international was part of the strategic plan early on. Already in 2015 the holding company of La Presse, at that time (before turning non-profit), sold the six French-language regional newspapers in Quebec that had been part of the company for many years.

Finally lets not forget what made the transformation possible for La Presse and these were actually the last words in Cardinales presentation at the seminar in Copenhagen before taking questions: "Our effective engagement platform has replaced the print newspaper in the hearts and minds of our loyal readership. And and, I'm proud of the work we did. The vision, the plan. And today it's, not only completed, but it's a success."

Useful links and contact information

The seminar presentation of the LA Press-case made by Francois Cardinal, can be downloaded here.
- The media properties of La Presse are (all in french!):


Francois Cardinale, the presenter and Deputy Publisher and Vice-President Information at La Presse, can be reached on this email address: cardinal@lapresse.ca . His phone number is +1 514 285 7000 (ext.ension 7031).

Here follows links to articles, that complement our story and that we recommend :

 

  • The industry expert (and today also a local news publisher) Ken Doctor analyses the strategy in a blog post on NiemanLab.org also from 2015: "Newsonomics: La Presse’s bet on tablets and its crossover calculus" http://www.niemanlab.org/2015/06/newsonomics-la-presses-bet-on-tablets-and-its-crossover-calculus/ 

    • ​Doctor reports an astonishing story about how La Presse managed to position its tablet ads in  an exclusive price group. The large ad revenue is explained by the high engagement measured in how long the users stay on the pages of the tablet apps. La Presse+ has even managed to surpass newspaper reading as it was in its heyday. The demographics also looks good, i.e. the age spread among the readers is wide. A large part of the readers are those who have not come into contact with La Presse on paper. To support advertising sales, a so-called AdLab was established early on, a creative department that helped customers develop advertising solutions that fit into the publishing environment. The customers were also offered a so-called creative kit where they could test different solutions themselves. Early on, around 2015, advertisers were also offered to capitalize on LA Press+'s ability to create reader engagement by starting a dedicated content marketing lab.

 

 

There are many newspapers that have stopped publishing in print, however very few have done it in  such a strategic manner as La Presse. Here are some others:

If you know of other relevant cases of successful full print stop transformations of local news to digital. Let us know. We woill add them to the list above and plan to come back to the topic for future webinars this autumn. 


You are welcome to contact me, Niklas Jonason, in the WAN-IFRA Innovate Local team, if you have questions or examples of similar services and especially if you have great cases in local news media to cover in a future webinar: n.jonason@wan-ifra.org

 

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