I love my country. Among many things, I enjoy its business attitude. In the media sector, it is an unabashed mixture of entrepreneurship, bold risk-taking and fearless independence. You can’t spend a week here without someone telling you : “Hey, you know what? We’re about to send some of our journalists, paid by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to train bloggers in Middle East. Isn’t that great ?” (Yeah, indeed — you just received a €14,000 invoice from the state health insurance administration, they recalculated the cost of your health coverage for the past year).
Another one: “We are going to launch a new version of our mega-site, built on CMS x.” (The guy mentions an horrendously expensive proprietary Content Management System)”. You ask : “… Huh, why not using free tools, instead? You hire a couple of engineers, create your own specs, schedule a year of successive upgrades, and you’ll get great results, no?”. The answer is ironclad: “Bah, it’s all government money, you know… It is part of the Press Modernization Fund… And we’ll even be able to finance the iPhone App from the same moneybag…”
As we speak, there is a big debate at the newly created Syndicat de la Presse Indépendante en Ligne (Spiil). This professional body of online news publishers, is pondering whether to accept subsidies. Pragmatists say big medias have been taking subsidies for decades. Now, the big guys spend huge sums of public money to upgrade their sites and they compete with us. Purists disagree: No way, we are not going to replicate the old MSM (Main Stream Media) behavior. Well, most of those pure players are struggling to balance their P&L while doing good journalism. Now way, I’ll lecture them one way or the other.
Yep, I love France’s profligate attempts to keep its press alive. No country spends more money to preserve the freedom and the plurality of its press: €1.2bn in 2008 (taking into account all forms of aid); that is 12% of the sector’s total revenue. (Just picture the US government coughing up about $8-10bn a year to help its newspapers and magazines industry!). And the percentage is likely to go up: new programs were announced this year (see Media acquisition, the French way) and press revenues are eroding. Between 2003 and 2007, French subsidies rose by 71% versus +21% in Sweden. For added perspective, Swedish readership is three times higher than in France and, as a result, proportionally five times less subsidized.
The Gallic public funding system seems a bottomless well of creativity. Take the last idea, celebrated as the perfect move to recapture the youngest audience. During one year, any 18 to 24 years old person is entitled to a 12 months free subscription to the daily of his or her choice. There is a catch, or two: only one issue per week and, for obvious financial reasons, the offer is also limited to the first 200,000 people registering at the MonJournalOffert.com site. A hell of a concept indeed. But, true, a success: the 200,000 subscriptions were exhausted in just a few days.
Allow me a couple of comments, here.
1 . Hallelujah! The paid-press just discovered the virtue of free distribution as a way to reach the young adults. After years of scornful comments against free information in print or on the internet, of definitive statement such as “the value of information must be tied to its price, no reader engagement if the reader doesn’t pay”, the very same people congratulate themselves while watching young readers pick-up their freebies.
2 . A daily newspaper once a week? That is a novelty. Although publishers are already struggling with flighty readerships, although editors still consider their product as a coherent news coverage continuum, the same now begin to say this sporadic piece of lettuce is going to turn junk-food addicts into vegetarians.
Research shows that only 6.7% of the 15-24 age group open a newspaper every day. Further, the so-called “occasional group” (people reading a newspaper, but not every day) makes up 42% of the national press’ readership, and 39% for the regional press. Erratic readership and fleeting loyalty are at the core of the daily press problem. The French technocrats’ response? Get yourself a treat, enjoy a newspaper, but in moderation, once a week!
It would have been smarter to set up one full week subscription at a given moment of the year. The experience of continuity is key to understanding a newspaper’s true value, its diversity of views and the depth of its coverage (plus it would make more sense from a logistics standpoint).
This once a week freebie runs directly against a newspaper’s core value; it broadcasts a condescending attitude, both toward the product and its intended audience.
3 . A program limited to 200,000 fast enough persons ? Wow. That’s a true democratic and popular move. A speed-based form of Darwinism. It concerns actually about 2% of that age group. That meager slice is unlikely to improve press demographics, which are not exactly glowing; only 17% of the 15-24 years old read a national newspaper and 23,8% read a regional one. The French press remains dominated by senior audiences : the 60+ age group represents 24,7% for the nationals and 49% for the regionals. For almost every newspaper, the largest audience groups are also the oldest ones.
The challenge to rejuvenate readership is every market’s problem, of course. What are the solutions?
Offering free access is not a dumb idea in itself. Ouest-France, the country’s biggest paper (770,000 copies/day) has been giving away free subscriptions for years and is getting a 12% conversion rate to paid ones. Ouest-France says it gained 22,000 readers over three years. But the free subscription is not a standalone tactic: the paper has developed special contents targeted to young audiences. So did many newspapers that recorded modest breakthroughs into younger readers. To get an idea, go to the Young Readers section of the World Association of Newspapers and see who won the World Young Readers Prize: in Brazil, Zero Hora enjoys a stunning 78% penetration rate among the 20 to 29 years old, and a 71% penetration among the 15-19 age bracket, a result this paper (183,00 circ.) has been achieving for years. Another key factor for catching and retaining young readers are school-related programs and promotional operations, both showing great results in many countries.
Coming back to France, PlayBac, a small but healthy publishing house has been built on a set of three highly targeted dailies (for 6, 10, and 14+ years old). Altogether, they got 150,000 subscribers (80% households and 20% classrooms) who pay about €9 a month — thanks to a postal subsidy — for a 4 to 8 pages cleverly designed and highly visual paper. Its marketing is built on strong parents and teachers support, and the systematic involvement of readers in the making of the daily. And it works fine, thanks. In addition to a vast business of ancillary products, PlayBac, is working on licensing its concept in several countries. That’s entrepreneurship.