newspapers

Le Monde’s escape velocity

In rocket scientist parlance, escape velocity is the speed needed to break free from Earth’s gravitational field. Last Friday, by an overwhelming majority, Le Monde’s staff voted to escape the black hole of French politics — or, at least, to give their paper the  best chance to do so.

Disassembling the utterly complex chain of ownership control at Le Monde would take most of this column. Let’s just say the newsroom, which historically controlled 22% of the company, gave a resounding 90% vote for a triumvirate including the head of Lazard France, Matthieu Pigasse (41); the co-founder of Yves-Saint-Laurent, Pierre Bergé (80); and Xavier Niel (43), the founder of Free, France’s largest non state-related telecommunication company. Together, the investment banker, the philanthropist, and the telco maverick are likely to become the main shareholders of the most prestigious French newspaper — one that is facing a severe cash crisis (see last wee Note Le Monde on the Brink). The journalist’s choice was supported by most constituencies in a position to influence the group’s fate. Only one voting body chose the other bid; technically it can trigger a deadlock for the ultimate vote at the board level, scheduled for this Monday; this is a highly unlikely scenario, one that would immediately lead to a bankruptcy filing.

Two years ago, such choice would have ben unthinkable. On paper, the other bid, led by Claude Perdriel — owner of the left-leaning newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur —, supported by the Spanish group Prisa and by France Telecom-Orange, would have got the prize. But their offer got mired in politics, and Le Monde’s staff reacted strongly against it.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s involvement doomed the Perdriel bids. When he summoned Le Monde’s current CEO, Eric Fottorino, to warn him, it felt like George Bush telling the New York Times’CEO: “You have two choices, here is my preference, be careful.” For any journalist, this type of ultimatum is the perfect repellent. Especially when, hoping to influence the decision, the executive branch pushes every lever.

To understand how it works, here, you have to keep in mind how the executive branch keeps the French medias under the tightest possible leash. When a government-friendly columnist is unhappy about his employer, he calls Sarkozy’s chief of staff (nicknamed the vice-president) who, in turn, calls the head of the broadcast network to express his concern. It always works like a dream, especially when the CEO of a network (radio or TV) is a government appointee or, for a private company, when the main shareholder is a FON — Friend Of Nicolas). More

Le Monde on The Brink

Within two weeks, the French newspaper Le Monde will run out of cash. By this Monday at noon, candidates to the takeover of the most prestigious French daily will have disclosed their offers. By June 28, the staff will vote and make the final decision for the fate of the 66 years-old paper.

More importantly, the newspaper’s independence will be under severe pressure.

Le Monde is the textbook example of the evolution of French press over the last years:

  • A steady erosion in readership.
  • A lack of budget discipline, made worse by loose governance.
  • The core newsroom’s reluctance to support the digital strategy
  • The collective certainty the “brand” was too beautiful to fail and that a deep-pocketed philanthropist will inevitably show up at the right time to save the company.
  • An difficulty to invest into the future, to test new ideas, to built prototypes, to coopt key talent or to invest in decisive technologies.
  • A bottomless investment in the heavy-industry part of the supply chain, in costly printing facilities.
  • An excessive reliance on public subsidies which account for about 10% of the industry’s entire revenue. Compared to Sweden, French newspapers have 3 times less readers, but each one gets 5 times more subsidies.

To a large extent, these characteristics are shared by most French newspapers. This could explain the dire situation of the Gallic press. As of today, four major properties are on the block, or urgently looking for saviors:

  • Le Monde seeks at least €100m (for a first round).
  • Le Parisien, a popular daily, is for sale; although quite good from an editorial perspective, it is not profitable and its family ownership wants to refocus on sports-related assets.
  • La Tribune, the n°2 business daily, is looking for a majority investor.
  • Liberation is also facing a  cash stress.

Le Monde’s situation is by far the most critical and the most emblematic. Here are the key elements : In 2009, the Groupe Le Monde had a revenue of €390m, an operating profit of €2.2m, and a net loss of €25 m. It is crumbling under €100m in debt, the result of a failed acquisition strategy. Its arcane shareholder structure includes Lagardère Group for 17%; the Spanish group Prisa (owner of El Pais) for 15%; the newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur for 5%; its staff for 22% and various other entities for the rest. Its main assets are : The daily Le Monde and its weekly magazine; Le Monde Interactif (including Le Monde.fr); three other magazines; and a printing plant. Over the last three years, it looked like this:

Over the last fifteen years, Le Monde’s management proved unable to come up with a cogent strategy. The group tried to expand into the regional press and into the magazine sectors without any coherence behind such moves. The only tangible achievement was the creation of Le Monde Interactif, this against most of an internet-adverse newsroom. In fact, Le Monde’s digital unit had to handle 34% of its ownership to the Lagardère Group in order to get sufficient funding. More

Managing the magazine component of newspapers

This is the second part of a series about the evolution of print media. Part I here.

A few years ago, the founder of the French daily Liberation was asked what he would do if he had unlimited resources to run his paper: “I would do a magazine everyday”, he said. During the late 80′s, “Libé”, as it was called, stood at the forefront of the transition from a traditional daily newspaper to a magazine-like concept, with long pieces, narrative journalism, reportages… Later in 1994, Libé launched a daily full-page featuring an in-depth profile including a photograph specifically shot for the occasion. It was a brilliant magazine-style piece, done under a demanding editor who did not hesitate to rewrite the story to give it rhythm, breadth and, sometimes, fun. (Usually, in France, dailies don’t get that much editing.) Amazingly, even though it has lost some of its luster, a feature that largely inspired the competition still survives 16 years later.

Magazine writing is still an appealing attribute for a daily paper. Just take a quick poll among your friends: the most notable articles they’ll recall from a newspaper will be magazine-like treatments. From a pure editorial perspective, the “magazinification” of dailies make more sense than ever. Breaking news and even developing stories have been captured by the web and by the mobile internet. In itself, this shift would justify a massive resource reallocation in favor of digital medias.

Having said that, does it make an economic sense to maintain the large editorial operation needed to produce every single day a product closer to a weekly or even a monthly magazine? To what extent do we need to reconsider the journalistic morphing that appeared a smart move ten or fifteen years ago? More

Euthanazing the paper? Not yet.

I love this year-old Warren Buffet quote: “If Mr. Gutenberg had come up with the Internet instead of movable type back in the late 15th century, and for 400 years we had used the Internet for news and all types of entertainment and all kinds of everything else, and I came along one day and said ”I have got this wonderful idea: we are going to chop down some trees up in Canada and ship them to a paper mill which will cost us a fortune to run through and deliver newsprint and then we’ll ship that down to some newspaper and we’ll have a whole bunch of people staying up all night writing up things and then we’ll send a bunch of kids out the next day all over town delivering this thing and we are going to really wipe out the Internet with this”… It ain’t going to happen”.

As a member of the Washington Post’s board of directors, Buffet knows quite a bit about converting trees into reading material. He saved the Washington Post Company, literally, by suggesting the acquisition of Kaplan Higher Education. Now, Kaplan accounts for 57% of the Post’s revenue and its operating income exactly offsets losses at the newspaper division (see 2009 earnings report).

A week ago, echoing Warren Buffet, Netscape co-founder and multi-board member Marc Andreesen, reiterated his recommendation: “Burn the Boats”. In a statement reported by TechCrunch, he used Hernan Cortes as a model. This is the explorer who, in the 16th century, after landing in Cuba, wanted to remove any other option than moving forward: he ordered the destruction of all ships.

Andreessen gets credits for persistence. A year earlier, he called publishers to “stop the presses tomorrow”, saying to TV host Charlie Rose: “…I’ll tell you what. The stocks would go up. The investors are through [with] the transition. You talk to any smart investor who controls any amount of money, he will tell you that the game is up. Like it’s completely over. And so the investors have completely written off print operations. There is no value in these stock prices attributable to print anymore at all. It’s gone. (…) How many years of chronic pain do you want to take to avoid taking a year of acute pain?” (video and transcript here).

Let’s take a closer look at delivering the final injection to print. In the United States, if we consider the newspaper industry as a whole, it’s a no brainer. As Alan Mutter explains on his blog, “some 93% of the industry’s $45 billion in sales were associated with the legacy print product”. True, but that’s for all US newspapers, including a large chunk of local outlets who offer nothing more than a token presence on the web. More

The 2010 Media Watch List

No predictions, just a few of many hot topics for the newborn year.

Paywalls. 2010 could see a significant number of newspapers jumping into the paid-for option. Among the conditions to be met:

- Grouping around a toll collector. It could be Journalism Online in the US, a big media group in Europe, or even Google — should a truce occur between the search giant and publishers. From the user’s standpoint, the payment intermediary must be friction free, able to operate on any platform (web, mobile) and across brands.
Publishers will have to devise a clever price structure. If a knee-jerk move takes them back to the tired basic-content vs. premium-content duality, they are doomed.
- State-of-the-art web analytics affords much more refined tactics around users, platforms segmentation, etc. In addition, a paid-for system must be able to deal with many sources of income, such as monthly subscriptions, pay by-the-click, metering system based on downloads, time spent, etc.
- Publishers must act in concert. In every market, the biggest players will have to carefully coordinate their move to paid-models: everybody must jump at the same time. This is easier said than done: there is always the risk a rogue player will “cheat”, that is break the pact in order to secure a better market position. Also, too much “coordination” could encourage a disgruntled competitor to sue on anti-trust grounds.Daily newspapers shifting to periodicals. How many dailies in the world will shift from seven or five issues a week to three or two? Undoubtedly, many. This is a better trend than it sounds. For breaking news, print is no longer relevant, but it will remain the medium of choice for long-form pieces. Newspapers publishing a few times a week will gain by becoming more magazine-like in their news coverage; they’ll save their story-breaking capabilities for web versions. In this regard, the mobile web will soon become bigger than the original, PC-based variant.
The “instant web” such as Twitter and its offspring will thrive in 2010. The likeliest offshoot is video-twittering as pocket size camcorders continue to spread (see Gizmodo comparison here). These will be supplemented by an upcoming generation of high-definition devices with Net connectivity through wifi or 3G networks.

Advertising Disintermediation. The media buying side is definitely not the sector to be in for the next decade. First of all, ad spending will continue its adjustment to the actual time spent on various medias. In 2008, print captured 20% of advertising dollars for only 8% of the time spent; in comparison, digital got 29% or our time but 8% of ad spending. Those numbers, those discrepancies tell us the correction is far from over.
Unless they devise smarter ways to analyze web audiences (see below, the audience measurement issue) and, as a result, clearly define the true value of each group of users, there is no longer a need for the media buyers’ costly intermediation. The trend is there: the most agile web sites will go directly to brands and advertisers, they will propose sophisticated integration mechanisms for their sites and mobile platforms. So do social networks such as the 25m users French Skyrock (see our case study).
Anyway, Google will settle the intermediation issue as its boss candidly puts it in Ken Auletta’s books (1): “Google wants to be the agent that sells the ads on all distribution platforms, whether it is print, television, radio or the internet. (…) As our technology gets better, we will be able to replace some of their [large companies] internal captive sales forces”. Media buyers, consider yourself notified: you’re toast.
As for the creative side, we hope advertising agencies will, at last, wake up and think of new ways to integrate their messages in digital media layouts (as in print), rather than trying to divert users away from media sites (see previous Monday Note on the inherent design flaws of the internet). More

Young readers: already hooked on subsidies

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. More

Negative-sum games

As if current economic conditions weren’t dire enough, several forces conspire to push the media sector’s financial performance further downward. These factors are an obsession with market share, price wars, and first movers’ ability to set the tone, often for the worse.

Take the iPhone application market as an example. At first, publishers were elated: at last, a content distribution platform with an embedded transaction system. They saw it as the first step to make customers pay for content. Then, another idea took over: market share. Like “eyeballs”, the old Internet Bubble de rigueur metric, market share is today’s mirage: once you get it, profit is (almost) sure to follow. Never mind there are zillions of companies that have once and for all severed the connection between market share and profit (Apple for computers, BMW in the auto industry, Nucor in steel production, name but a few).

Unfortunately, the first one who shoots for market share sets the standard, sometimes with surprising twists and turns. Take the Wall Street Journal: first-rate web site, highly successful business-wise with one million paid subscriptions (about $100/yr). When it came to the iPhone opportunity, guess what: they went for a free application loaded with pathetic ads — apparently locked on the saturation mode, the same banner kept showing endlessly. Just a few weeks ago, seeing a steep drop in profits, the WSJ.com reversed itself and restricted access to its app. More

The Cash Is In The Topics

All conversations I keep having about the economics of a news web sites revolve around two key ideas: how to increase both the duration and the depth of a visit. In this respect, much work remains. For August 2009, here are the numbers of page views, as measured by Nielsen Net Ratings on the French market. :

  • Online gaming:         between 400 and 600 page views per person and per month
  • Facebook:………………………411
  • Google:………………………….260
  • Meetic (dating site) :………..208
  • Leboncoin (free classified):..182

That was for the top 17 French sites ; further down in the rankings, medias sites go like this:

  • TF1 (n°1 television network):…39
  • Le Monde (national daily):………24
  • Ouest-France (regional daily):…22
  • 20 minutes (national free):…….20
  • Le Figaro (national daily):………20
  • Les Echos (business daily):…….14
  • Rue 89 (pure player):……………10
  • LePost (pure player):………………8
  • Liberation (national daily):……….8
    (Those numbers apply widely elsewhere as behaviors don’t vary much from one market to the other)


Well. You see where I’m going: if you set aside tricks such as massive video or slide-show contents used to artificially increase page view numbers, heavily used news sites such as Le Monde’s or Le Figaro’s get less than 5% of the monthly page views of a gaming site. Agreed, you shouldn’t compare gambling and consuming information; but in analog life, there isn’t the wide difference we observe in the digital universe, on line, between the amount of time people spend playing the lottery or betting on horses, and reading a newspaper or a magazine. In other words, the internet hugely accentuates the viewer’s “engagement” in favor of social entertainment, at the expense of consuming solid, but static contents such as news. Depressing indeed. But here is the good news: there is room for improvement.

If we take 4 pages per visit as a credible average for a news site, adding 2 more pages  per visit will sharply increase the actual advertising revenue per visit. Not by 50%, of course, since the more you add pages, the less valuable they become (CPM drop fast once you leave the hottest part of a site), but still worth the effort. More

Inhale, it’s Free

“Free”, as a business model, is a figment of the imagination. In itself, “Free” is not a business model, it is only a component of broader revenue system. Unlike Chris Anderson, author of the book “Free” ($18.00) — a bestseller not a bestfreebie — I happened to actually practice the free “model”. Between 2002 and 2007, I was the editor of one of the most successful free quality daily newspapers in the world.  20 minutes is now the most read newspaper in France with 2.7m readers, every single day, in eight major cities.

To put things in perspective, the US equivalent would be a free daily distributed in about 20 cities, with 13 millions readers. More than Japan’s Asahi Shimbun. 20 minutes is not a mere compilation of newswires. It is a “real” newspaper, with original content provided by an 80+ journalists newsroom. And readers love it. Free it is. But so costly.  When we reached our cruising altitude, we needed about €200,00 ($280,000) in advertising to break even (which the paper eventually did achieve). In Spain, too, 20 minutos, became the largest daily in its market with 14 different editions and a good profit margin — that was before the recession struck hard. (The Norwegian group Schibsted owns 100% of Spain’s 20 minutos and half of the French edition, in joint ownership with the regional group Ouest-France).  

I was then an advocate for the “free” press and I still am. Applied to the print media, the free concept brings many great things. 20 minutes’ readers turned out to be :

  • New : 75% of them didn’t read a newspapers before.
  • Young : they were about 10 to 15 years younger than the average French reader.
  • More gender balanced: we had an equal proportion of male and female readers.
  • More professionally active (almost no retired people, for instance).

This was no accident, it was the result of a well-crafted strategy. More

A Case Study: Le Figaro’s Advertising Gamble

Let’s start with a counterintuitive move: At a time when, all over the world, publishers are  tired of the red-ink their printing plans produce and dream of dumping the dinosaurs, the historic French daily Le Figaro fires up this Monday a brand new €80M printing facility to launch a redesigned edition. Behind this apparently irrational decision lies a gutsy but calculated bet to change French advertising habits.



French  newspapers love what they call
Une Nouvelle Formule. As the Fall approached, the left-leaning Libération launched its own, then Le Monde retooled its weekly magazine. “Libé” is betting on an elegant graphic redesign; fine, but this is merely a diversion, a way to avoid painful challenges such as editorship, insightfulness, content relevance.
Le Monde Magazine wishes to reconnect an excellent but elitist magazine to the advertising market and, incidentally, to its readers. To beef up its mag operation, Le Monde brought in a new seasoned editor, a new art director and relies on an abundance of journalistic or photographic talent at and around the paper in order to produce high-quality content.
How these two initiatives will fare is too early to tell. Le Monde’s mag was launched Friday, as for the redesigned Libé, it is barely a week old.

Le Figaro’s move is both more ambitious and much riskier. First, let’s have a look at the company’s fundamentals. More