A page in history turns

Last Saturday, 30th December, one of Canada’s largest and most prestigious newspapers, the Montreal French-language publication La Presse, rolled out its final print weekend edition (Canadian weekend newspapers have traditionally been sold on Saturdays), in the 133 year history of the newspaper.

“Une page d’histoire se tourne” – which translates to ‘A page in history turns’ ‒ screamed the final headline on newsprint. Indeed it was, as La Presse became one of the few newspapers to make the successful transition from print to the digital platform.

Two years ago, beginning on 1st January, 2016, the publication, following an announcement in September, 2015, had eliminated publishing on weekdays.  The decision to follow suit with the weekend edition, had been communicated to the readership six months ago.

Founded in 1884 by political organiser William-Edmond Blumhart, as a conservative organ, La Presse, under publisher Treffle Berthiaume (1848-1915), became well known for its journalism, cartoons and community events, whilst building up its mass readership. Along with the Montreal Gazette, La Presse is a rare survivor of the dozens of newspapers published in the francophone city.

How has La Presse made the transition to the digital age?  The newspaper with the third largest circulation in Canada had recognised for a long time that the change was inevitable and had begun working on its business model several years ago. It introduced a website, Cyberpresse.ca in 2000, which later became La Presse.ca and launched its online edition, La Presse + in 2013.

The metamorphosis has not been painless. When the weekdays in print form were eliminated, 158 jobs were lost, including 43 in the newsroom. The latest conversion caused the loss of 49 jobs, 17 from the newsroom. Today, the media outlet employs 235 reporters up from the 195 on its payroll in 2010.

In 2010, when the publication announced its digital strategy, its circulation was 210,000. Today, 270,000 users have downloaded their app onto their tablets and are spending an average of 40 minutes perusing the newspaper, as compared to the 25 minutes spent by the average print reader.

In an interview with Fagstein, a blogger, in October, 2013, six months after the launch of La Presse +, the publisher Jean Crevier explained the strategy behind the newspaper’s transformation. The blogger, on the day of the launch, had questioned the sanctity of the owners of the newspaper when they had given away the app for free after spending $40 million (all figures are in Canadian dollars) to produce it.

Crevier revealed that the $40 million spent over the three previous years was cheap compared to what it would cost to replace the presses, $150 to $200 million (which would only produce runs of 250, 000 to 300,000 maximum) and incur annual operating expenses (ink, paper, trucks,) of $100 million. Now, the only additional expense was bandwidth, with the potential for a limitless readership.

The company spent a lot of time on experimentation and numbers since there was no existing model from which they could pattern a format. Newspapers were a habit of baby boomers and the new generation was not going to start reading newspapers as they got older. The change was going to be permanent. Demographic projections revealed that readership was declining at an accelerating rate. What was the point in continuing? Was there even a solution? Crevier did not favour paywalls as a long term solution.

After spending two million dollars on research for the digital transition project, one of the most revealing discoveries was the time taken for a new product to develop and when it reaches ten per cent audience penetration; ranging from the telephone which took 25 years, to internet access ‒ nine years; to smart phones – seven years; to tablets – two-and-a-half years.

“Our profound understanding is that the tablet will become its own media, stronger than television, stronger than newspapers, stronger than magazines. Because it is interactive, it is mobile, it has exceptional reproduction, it has sound, video,” Crevier stated. The future had been found, and the research staff was instructed in January, 2010 to keep the DNA of La Presse whilst creating a medium that exploited the full potential of the device.

Over the next three years, as most newspapers were cutting back on staff, La Presse spent $24 million on hiring 100 additional newsroom staff including journalists, columnists, page designers, videographers and photographers. Another eight million was funnelled into software, as a German company created pages which allowed for multiple simultaneous users.

Crevier noted in that interview that the future of the newspaper lay in advertising and a lot of time and effort was spent in selecting the right kind of ads for the online edition. Crevier had laughed confidently at the end of the interview, “Sure, there is worry,” in response to the potential gamble the paper was taking

By December 2016, La Presse was one of the few newspapers that had reached “the crossover point,” according to media analyst Ken Doctor, where its digital revenue far exceeded that garnered by its print edition. As of last week, the digital revenue had reached the astronomical figure of 90 per cent, according to the paper.

Canada’s largest two circulating newspapers, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, both Toronto based, have tried to follow suit, only to abandon the shift to digitisation. Clearly, there is no magic formula for this transformation.

In its final print edition, La Presse included a Thank You note, printed in both French and English. Here is an excerpt, “As announced, today’s print edition of La Presse is the final one. The paper version will no longer be published or distributed…”

“I’m sure our founders would have said this is an excellent idea,” Eric Trottier, the paper’s deputy managing editor, told the Montreal Gazette last week.

Yes, they would have agreed.

Hats off to La Presse for paving the way for newspapers in the digital age.

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