La Presse + Pushes Mobile's Frontier
It doesn’t take many details before the investment of La Presse +, an iPad-only app from Montreal’s La Presse newspaper, could strain the credulity of a U.S. publisher.
Start with the $36 million (about $40 million Canadian) that went into it. Then add the roughly 100 new staffers ranging from programmers and developers to a small fleet of videographers among them. Factor in the rapid user adoption and engagement claims — some 435,000 downloads in the app’s 11-month life with engagement times of close to 45 minutes with the weekday editions and edging to 70 minutes on weekends — according to the paper’s internal metrics.
Could any U.S. editor or publisher even imagine mouthing those words, let alone saying them aloud? All of which is to say that by now, even the most digitally bullish U.S. publisher could be forgiven for thinking that Montreal is actually in some kind of alternate reality, especially when it comes to swallowing one last fact.
La Presse says that 28% of its overall revenue now comes from one app that is only available on iPad.
Behind these numbers, it’s hard to dispute that La Presse has made one of the boldest digital gambles in the industry, one that demands serious consideration. After all, we’re not talking about a fly-by-night pureplay experiment here, but a top-to-bottom upheaval by a storied newspaper dating back to 1884, the largest francophone paper in North America with a print circulation of about 200,000 and a readership estimated at 800,000. La Presse is part of the Gesca chain, a subsidiary of Canada’s formidable Power Corp.
A closer look at its investment, its development strategy and how it is reinventing an approach to daily journalism’s workflow may give the industry the most vivid glimpse into the future available right now. If so, it’s a view that veers dramatically from the digital trajectory on which most U.S. papers find themselves today.
Behind the investment
Guy Crevier, La Presse’s president and editor, launched the endeavor that would result in the La Presse + app in January 2010 at a much-recounted meeting where he declared his intention to produce a new kind of mass medium. But the paper’s proclivity for dramatic reinvention actually goes back much further to around 2000, according to Caroline Jamet, president of Éditions La Presse and Éditions Gescat and VP of communications for La Presse.
“We decided our thinking process needed to change,” Jamet says of the company’s look ahead to a post-print future. “We became a content company.”
After Crevier threw down the gauntlet in 2010, La Presse invested about $24 million Canadian in salaries for analysts, developers and technology experts. “We created an entire floor to build this application,” Jamet says. “We wanted to keep the talent here, within our building basically. Once you build something like this, it doesn’t stop because you have to continue developing.”
La Presse spent another $2 million Canadian in research, partnering with Hautes Études Commerciales, a business-oriented university in Montreal, to conduct more sophisticated eye-tracking and facial expression studies as it developed and iterated the app. Jamet says it also established a lab to test new ad units, which it put in front of panels every week for a year before landing in a suite of units in which it felt confident.
Jamet says the investment is far cheaper than if La Presse had spent hundreds of millions on a new printing plant and continued heavily reinvesting in the paper’s physical distribution.
Perhaps, but at this point, any reasonable publisher might stop to ask, “But why the iPad?” After all, the device has nothing close to the penetration of smartphones among news consumers.
“Most people, in a certain socio-economic reality, often own iPads,” says Pierre-Elliot Levasseur, La Presse’s EVP. “About 40% of our readers have iPads.”
The form factor also lent itself to a vastly more dramatic and engaging way to do what La Presse does best, Jamet adds. “In the iPad we have extremely sophisticated images, we have video, we have a lot of interactivity. We’re able to tell the story in a much more intricate and elaborate way,” she says.
For Levasseur, the tablet opens opportunities that haven’t seen fruition on the desktop or even the smartphone-based mobile Web.