What if the French daily press won its digital wager?

Article  by  Luciano BOSIO  •  Published 30.09.2014  •  Updated 23.09.2014
PQN InaGlobal Quentin Vijoux
All of this talk of the crisis in the written press and the decline of newspapers is too easy. Luciano Bosio predicts that the French daily press will hold up well, and that digital media are stirring up stimulating competition that is bringing about new business models.


Between aging readers, declining circulation and uncertain choices on the Web, a decade ago, it was easy to announce the definitive decline of the national daily press. Today, the situation is different. Le Figaro, Le Monde and Le Parisien are leading the pack in terms of digital presence, and Les Échos is doing so for economic news. In securing a younger readership, they are close to finding a new business model, according to independent consultant Luciano Bosio.
In France, the national daily press has long benefitted from more success in terms of reputation than actual readers: in the late 20th century, it counted eight million daily readers, versus more than ten million daily readers of weekly publications (news and other), and up to 18.5 million for regional dailies.
In the early 2000s, as the development of Internet started to shake up the news industry, nothing indicated that national dailies would be likely or even able to recapture their power. It was observed that their readership, certainly rich in AB+ and university degrees, was aging, and did not count many young professionals, despite the growing number of degrees earned by younger generations. A study conducted in 2009 for the French Ministry of Culture clearly attests to the fact that fewer and fewer young readers are recruited from one generation to the next. The future of dailies seemed definitively in limbo. This was furthermore the opinion of most of the country’s cultural, economic and political elite – that the press was doomed to die, and television and digital media were the principal objectives.
Then, in the early years of the new millennium, the striking success of the free urban daily press both topped off and complicated this diagnosis. Some observers, blinded by the free press’s readership, measured in the millions – up to five million readers with only three titles – were quick to predict the imminent death of the paid press at the hands of the free press.
But this failed to take into account a new factor set to shake up the news landscape, redistributing the media power cards in terms of young readership as well, giving body to what had previously been viewed with suspicion by certain publishers and the vast majority of journalists – the rise of certain media outlets in the framework of the digital revolution.
Starting in 2009, first hesitantly, and then with more confidence, national titles of the quality press gained power online. Initially developing a free offer, they showed Web users that longstanding newspapers – some more than 100 years old – were capable of publishing content that was not only modern, but highly varied, ranging from classic news items to sports, celebrity, lifestyle and leisure news. And audiences followed: American Internet giants, which had hogged the top spots on Médiamétrie rankings for years, were unable to keep up.
But who were these online readers? Largely new generations who, over time, had turned away from the national daily media’s paid print offer.

1973-2008: fewer regular readers

A 2008 study conducted by consulting and forecasting firm Bipe furthermore showed that 40% of the May 1968 generation continued to read dailies at the age of 60, compared to 36% who did so at the age of 20. As for those who were of age to fight in the Algerian War, 48% of whom read dailies at the age of 30, 46% are still readers at the age of 70. However, only 21% of what Bipe refers to as the “AIDS” generation are readers at the age of 35, down from 28% who were at the age of 20. What about members of the “9/11” generation, only 9% of whom read dailies at the age of 20?
And what would have become of national dailies without the invention of Internet? Unfortunately, it must be noted that their decline seemed inevitable.  The digital revolution, created a landscape in which all brands producing general, political, economic and cultural news started off on equal footing. In other terms, the loss of attractiveness of the form and commercial offer underlying the content would have ultimately gotten the better of written journalism. But publishers quickly understood that investing in Internet would allow them to win over young generations, a source of clientele that never dries up if mobilized at the age – 15 to 24 years old – when life-long media habits are formed. They made investments in the Web that some suggested would be better made in the written press, first and foremost, in an entirely defensive vision. They made the right choice, given that if readers are recruited at the age of 20, and continue to be offered content that they are seeking out, they won’t abandon their source. And the virtuous circle perpetuates itself.
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2000s: reading the press online

Indeed, by 2008, a new phenomenon had already emerged, and continues to rise today: those under 35 are leaving behind paid dailies to glance at the free press without being fully won over; but at the same time, they have adopted the habit of “reading the press” online. This behavior quickly became a widespread habit among young people in higher socio-professional categories, students and workers alike, and among residents of big cities and the Paris region. In the space of a few years, the brands of major dailies were reborn on the Web. In reality, what they read online is not exactly the press (barring PDF versions), but the websites of major newspapers, and more recently, their mobile and tablet apps. The “press brand” has spread to digital platforms, gaining the trust of readers, young and less young alike.
The digital revolution, which is at the origin of the operational reality of media brands and their flourishing, created a landscape in which all brands producing general, political, economic and cultural news started off on equal footing. Their media of origin is not of great importance – although television had an advantage in the beginning in terms of video images, which it strangely didn’t take advantage of. Their age or birth directly online – for those outlets referred to as pure players – is not a decisive line of demarcation either, in and of itself. And for so-called “press” sites, the original frequency (daily or weekly), as well as the way in which the brand is circulated in its print version, (paid or free), does not help set it apart in a major way. Only the brand value truly makes a difference.

In the digital era, news is daily and continuously updated over the course of the day. Previously, major news dailies, such as France Soir in the 1960s and 70s, would print several editions per day if the needs of the news called for it. This was the case during the arrivals of Tour de France stages, and every time a major event, political or otherwise, deserved a “special edition”. Later, in the 1990s, all-news formats emerged, providing continuous updates throughout the day and stopping at night, with France Info on the radio, Ici, TNT, BFM and i-Télé on television.
Internet has done much more. With news updated in real time day and night, new formats and news sources have emerged: “citizen journalism”, interactivity, permanent dialogue between news producers and the reading public via comments; multimedia, with parallel use of writing, sound and image, fixed or in motion, to continuously enrich news stories, analysis and commentary. Faced with this Copernican revolution in news production, all media brands are now in competition – and quality alone makes the difference.
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Who has won the digital news battle?

In the early 2000s, when news sites emerged on what we now call the Web or fixed Internet – computers – nothing indicated that the major titles of the national daily press, at the time seen as being on their last legs, would be best-positioned to win the battle. Not in France, at any rate! But in the U.S., rich and prestigious titles such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, alongside The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph in the U.K., benefitted from the sweeping reach of the English language to recruit readers throughout the Anglo-Saxon world.
But this wasn’t the case in France or Germany, leader in the magazine press – where the audience of the website of the weekly Der Spiegel surpasses those of quality German papers. In France, though, the digital battle has been won. According to results of a panel run by Médiamétrie/Net Ratings, the only ratings measure recognized by the publishing market, advertising agencies and companies, this has been thanks to fixed Internet, where hierarchies that had been in place for a number of years recently faced the test of a serious reform in audience measurements, which didn’t affect the national daily press brands. But it has also been thanks to new mobile platforms, i.e. smartphones and tablets, which are winning over growing audiences.
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New leadership thanks to renewed readership

The uncontested success of major national daily press brands online – three leading general news sites from dailies Le Figaro, Le Monde and Le Parisien-Aujourd’hui en France; leading sports site L’Equipe; and leading business and financial site Les Echos – has had three major consequences.
The first consequence is that national daily brands have entirely reaffirmed their leadership on the media circuit. Pure players and Internet aggregators have certainly conquered the top slot among news sites in terms of monthly audiences, but they still don’t exist for audiovisual journalism. News is selected and ranked by dailies, either via direct presence on their sites or indirectly via social media, making up the menu of morning news shows on major radio stations like France Inter, France Info, Europe 1, RTL and RMC, as well as the noon, evening and late-night television news broadcasts. The wealth and array of radio and television news, whose teams can’t do without the contribution of daily press outlets, are strongly dependent on this, and the brand image of national dailies widely benefits as a result. The second consequence is that the digital revolution, bringing with it free access to a wide array of content on quality sites, has sparked back off discussion on the seemingly inevitable trend of ageing readership and the growing inability to recruit new readers, as analyzed above.
With 39% of readers aged 65 and older and more than 64% aged 50 and older, the readership of the national daily paper press does not correspond with the average in terms of the French population. Ageing is clearly an issue. It can even be affirmed that the favored clientele is now that of retirees in the Paris region. But alongside the former readership, faithful to the paper form, a new generation of readers is emerging, exclusively fond of digital forms. Its profile stands in stark contrast: much younger than the French average (35% are younger than 35, compared with 29% for the national average), overrepresented in terms of students and workers, extremely present in all urban areas with more than 100,000 residents. Another profile is that of still-numerous readers with mixed habits, adopting digital without entirely abandoning paper. The synergy between these different readerships makes for a profile of readers of daily press outlets with three main characteristics: they are young, active in the working world, and urban. This is a sign that the battle for renewal is in the process of being won.
The 37% of those aged 18 to 24 who state that they read the press more frequently than before – according to a study by MédiaMétrie’s media behavior department, published in February 2014 – represents a striking figure. It rather spectacularly contradicts reigning beliefs. We now know that in speaking of “the press”, young people think of digital rather than paper, and increasingly, mobile platforms. This is what the press means for them, with little room for debate. Since 2011, readership of the free urban press has systematically declined, replaced by reading on smartphones. In order to preserve their readership, free dailies have furthermore developed their web presence, often tardily so. Naturally, on mobiles, they have lost their free appeal, and thus, their strong position. The quality of the content of major national press brands has caught up with them.
Digital mobile platforms perform better amongst more mobile populations, clearly. If the age structure of readers of the online press on the computer is compared with that of mobile readers, a 14-point gap in favor of smartphones emerges among those under 35 years old. All agree that the future of the Internet lies in mobile devices, particularly for news sites and social networks. For the national daily press, this future is already present.

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A shifting business model

The third consequence, resulting from the first two, is that the websites of daily titles as well as their smartphone and tablet apps may herald the emergence of a successful new business model, as the old one, dependent on paper, was drastically destabilized by the digital revolution. How many times have we heard the argument that digital technologies, and Internet in particular, mercilessly destroyed the value created by newsrooms, even the most powerful? In reality, entirely free access to news sites is what destroyed the value of paid paper titles, and ultimately, the companies that publish them. This destruction of value didn’t wait for Internet – it had already kicked off with the rise of the free press.
But if the public opts to visit and use the national daily press’s sites and apps rather than others, also accessible and free (those of the free press, naturally, as well as most news sites and sites of other weekly news sources, the daily regional press, all radio and TV sites, all pure players with the exception of Mediapart), this is because the quality of their news is better than that of other offers. This is unsurprising given that national dailies alone invest as much as they do in the news, in France and around the world, thanks to networks of correspondents.
Thanks to the recognized reliability of their news, national daily brands have been able to introduce more and more paid elements into their offer, while in general, other sites haven’t dared do so for fear of weakening their audience. This encompasses sales of PDF versions of paper titles, as well as payments directly concerning sites and apps, in the form of pay walls (Les Echoes) or paid sections (Le Monde, Le Figaro and even L’Equipe), creating a “freemium” site model.
Thus, step by step, the national daily press is building back up its resources and is able to continue to fund its news ambitions. In 2013, the cumulated ad revenues of its paper editions and web sites – which now represent nearly one-third of the total – nearly reached what they were five years ago, in 2009. And the regularly growing revenues of web sales are called upon to gradually replace those still coming from the circulation of paper copies.

For many years, companies that published dailies thus opted for a mixed business model, with revenues from sales of copies – or content – and ad revenues from paper and digital versions. Resources from brand activities in neighboring sectors such as publishing, entertainment and leisure must not be forgotten. The major French dailies are not the only ones to have successfully gone in this direction. In all large western countries in which news production and distribution have reached an unparalleled level of complexity in terms of sophistication and maturity, this same business model has allowed major titles to succeed, defend their leadership and, in the wake of what may be the biggest transformation in the history of the press, imagine renewed profitability – the best guarantee of their independence.


Article illustrations by Quentin Vijoux

Illustration sources
Médiametrie – NetRatings, Ways of connecting – Web users two and up, February 2014; Médiametrie – Mobile Internet, Wifi included – All operators (except Blackberry), Applications and sites, February 2014; Médiametrie – Panel iPad, Applications and sites, T4 2013.
One Global 2013 MNR Study, National daily press. Print: average daily reads/fixed and mobile: use over 30 days and National Daily press. Print: average daily reads /fixed and mobile: use over 30 days, January 2014; One Global 2013 MNR Study. National daily press. Computer: use over 30 days, fixed website. Mobile phone: use over 30 days, mobile website, January 2014.

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