Five years after La Presse, seven more French-language newspapers go online-only

Are we witnessing, finally, the death of the newspaper?

I don’t necessarily mean it in a bad way. Most of the time when you hear about a newspaper or magazine going “online-only” it’s a cost-cutting measure that signals the publication’s impending death (no matter how much they claim otherwise).

But as the business model for print media changes, the balance appears to be tipping to the point where it makes more and more sense to go online-only even if you still employ dozens or even hundreds of professionals doing daily journalism.

La Presse publisher Guy Crevier explained the math to me 10 years ago, before that publication decided to make the big leap. Publishing a print edition comes with a lot of overhead costs. The pages have to be designed, both in terms of news content and advertising. The newspaper needs to be printed, either at your own plant or by a third party. The newspaper then needs to be distributed through a network of delivery people who need to work before sunrise every day the paper publishes. And you need a subscriptions department to manage print subscriptions and deal with all the issues that come up.

What’s more, many of those costs don’t scale linearly. As print subscribers and print ad revenue dwindle, it costs more per subscriber to produce. And subscribers will tolerate price increases only so much.

In January 2016, La Presse took the first step toward weaning itself from its identity as a newspaper by cutting down to one print issue a week. Two years later, it abandoned print entirely.

Other once-daily newspapers have also taken that first step in going weekly, like Métro. Some, like Saltwire and Postmedia publications, have taken a more gradual approach, dropping Monday editions.

More newspapers dropping the paper part

On Wednesday, the Coopérative nationale de l’information indépendante (CN2i) announced its six newspapers — Le Soleil in Quebec City, Le Droit in Ottawa-Gatineau, La Tribune in Sherbrooke, Le Nouvelliste in Trois-Rivières, Le Quotidien in Saguenay and La Voix de l’Est in Granby — would cease producing print editions at the end of the year. The six newspapers had all dropped down to weekly publication at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, mere weeks after they had been sold to employee cooperatives out of the ashes of Groupe Capitales Médias. (This month the group announced its cooperatives would merge into one to cut down on overhead.)

The CN2i sugarcoated the announcement with news about a new website and mobile app, saying this was the plan all along. They expect to drop 100 print-centric jobs but will do what they can to encourage voluntary departures and otherwise minimize layoffs.

A week ago, Quebecor’s 24 Heures, which was born as a free commuter daily in 2001, announced it too would cease publishing in print. A note to readers was not quite as upbeat as the one from CN2i, talking about grieving but still promising to be active online and social media.

How long before more take the plunge? Maybe not that long.

Quebecor’s Journal de Montréal and Journal de Québec took pride in proclaiming that they would remain print newspapers when La Presse transitioned away from print. But even they eventually had to face the music, and announced in December that they would no longer be publishing in print on Sundays.

The Montreal Gazette, my employer, has also stuck to print editions, partly because its print readership skews older, but even then it dropped Monday print editions.

Le Devoir has also stuck to print editions, in part to separate itself from La Presse. But I would not be surprised if they too eventually decide print isn’t worth it anymore (especially because they’re printed by Quebecor and at the whims of the business decisions of Quebecor’s printing plants).

Will it work?

A decade after the launch of La Presse+, which the publication quickly dubbed its flagship product, things seem to be going well. In its latest annual report, it reported a surplus, which it is using to build a reserve fund. And while the nonprofit is accepting donations from readers, it would still have had a surplus even without those donations. It says 80% of its revenue still comes from advertising.

That’s not to say the iPad app is a runaway success. La Presse has put more effort into its website and mobile apps, understanding that it can’t push everyone toward tablets. And the Toronto Star’s StarTouch project, based on La Presse+, was a spectacular and expensive failure.

But this is proof there’s hope out there for what were once daily subscription newspapers. If they are willing to invest and innovate, and stop trying to prop up the old business model by cutting expenses until they whittle themselves into nothing, they might be able to come out of this.

Unfortunately, for a lot of publications, the focus isn’t so much on innovation as it is on finding magical solutions like getting Facebook and Google to give them a bunch of money.

7 thoughts on “Five years after La Presse, seven more French-language newspapers go online-only

  1. Mark Laurence

    Remember The Gazette’s short-lived tablet app? I thought it was beautifully designed but it didn’t last long. Now the app looks like everybody else: utilitarian with the same appearance day after day.

  2. David Leonardo

    While many will attribute this new setback for print media to declining ad revenues, this time the internet competition is blameless. The economy is sinking so there are fewer ad dollars to go around. Many signals are there, but the one for me is a Cdn Federation of Small Business which reported half the retail stores are not paying or behind on the rent.

    Without knowing details, my estimate is that 350 workers making six digital newspapers and the print weeklies, is over-staffing. And their new all-digital plan should be under 50. But as a co-op it’s hard to toss a fellow shareholder and colleague, thus the high number which remain on the job.

    Not just print media faces challenges, but other industries which will soon join us in an uncomfortable red ink bath.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      I’m not sure you can seriously run six major news outlets in mid-size cities with less than 50 people. That would mean eight people per market. With 250 it would be about 42 per market, which between reporters, editors, photographers and management seems reasonable, though time will tell if it’s sustainable.

  3. David Leonardo

    You have to live with the revenue coming in (or close to it) so my guess is 50. But I hope that I am wrong in that they will be able to balance the books with more staff. Those who can find a way to do this, will be alive next year. This kind of business plan is without quality, just survival to when good economic times return. I saw this in the 1980s when I was paying 18% interest on my loans and amazingly survived.

  4. Richard G

    Yes the Gazette skews older but as you quoted regarding print expenses ,” many of those costs don’t scale linearly.” Its paper version is on borrowed time . The question is can it survive strictly on-line .

  5. Dilbert

    Perhaps now we can stop calling it print media and move it on to “word media” or something like that.

    The reality of print is that the first wave of computer types are reaching the age demographics newspapers have been catering to: Over 50s. Now people in that age have spent most of their lives with computers and are comfortable with them. The remaining demographic of people who can’t or won’t use a tablet of phone for this sort of thing is shrinking rapidly. Advertisers know it, and they too have moved on.

    Word media types will have to learn that things like layers and layers of staff are a luxury no longer afforded. Everyone has a smart phone with a very good camera on it, and for a lot of things a reporter getting story might also take a picture of the event, building, or person. In the online world, that is mostly acceptable.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *