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La Presse+ (Hand-out/La Presse)
La Presse+ (Hand-out/La Presse)

Quebec's La Presse to scrap weekday print edition to focus on app Add to ...

La Presse will scrap its weekday print edition starting Jan. 1, staking its future on its popular tablet app and taking one of the boldest steps yet in the print newspaper industry’s continuing shift to digital publishing.

The Montreal-based daily had signalled since early 2014 that its days on printed paper were numbered. Even so, the move came sooner than some expected – Transcontinental Inc., the company that prints La Presse, only learned of the decision just before it was made public on Wednesday.

Even after the changes take effect, La Presse will continue printing and delivering its Saturday print edition, acknowledging in a statement that reading it “remains a potent, engaging ritual to which many people are profoundly attached.”

But the newspaper’s owners are doubling down on their faith in the La Presse+ tablet app, which launched in April, 2013, and now attracts about 460,000 weekly readers. The colourful, polished tablet edition brings in 60 per cent of the company’s revenue, and represents a rare all-or-nothing bet on the sustainability of free, digital news by a major print daily.

President and publisher Guy Crevier said it is too costly to sustain both the print paper and digital initiatives, and that cutting printing to one day a week will save La Presse $30-million annually.

“So we have a choice: Do we save the paper, or do we tend to the future of La Presse+? The answer is fairly easy,” Mr. Crevier said in an interview. “It’s sad, but at the same time it’s a relief because we’re leaving a sector that is in decline.”

Some staff will lose their jobs, he said, and he will meet with employees and union representatives on Sept. 24 to outline a new structure.

Even as many publishers’ print revenues are declining by double-digit percentages, most newspapers still depend heavily on print advertising, which still attracts much higher rates than online ads. By contrast, La Presse says it has inverted that math: A half-page ad in La Presse+, at $68 per thousand impressions, now earns La Presse substantially more than the $42 paid for the same space and reach in print.

With 70 per cent of La Presse revenue now coming from digital platforms, and almost all of it from ads, “they had reached a crossover point,” said Ken Doctor, a media analyst at Newsonomics who has studied La Presse’s tablet strategy.

“I think what [La Presse] has done is the harbinger of things to come – that it is the weekend paper in Canada, the U.S., Europe, that will endure far longer than daily printing,” Mr. Doctor said.

Few other newspapers have reached that tipping point. On Tuesday, the Toronto Star launched its own tablet edition built with La Presse’s technology and training, but the Star will stay in print seven days a week. Even The New York Times, which boasts more than one million digital subscribers, earns less than a third of its ad revenue from digital platforms.

Several newspapers have stopped printing on Mondays and the Detroit Free Press cut back to three printed days a week. But examples of daily newspapers abandoning weekday printing altogether are still rare. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer dropped its print version in 2009, and cut much of its newsroom staff. The nationally-read Christian Science Monitor left print behind the same year, but survived the transition partly with financial support from an endowment fund and a church subsidy.

La Presse has been laying the groundwork for its digital leap for four years, and had been actively encouraging subscribers to give up print in favour of the tablet edition.

In February, 2014, Gesca Ltée, the subsidiary of Power Corp. of Canada that owns La Presse, struck a deal with Transcontinental to amend the terms of its printing contract, which expires in 2018. By paying Transcontinental $31-million, Gesca gained the “flexibility” to cut back on printing “in accordance with its needs.”

Then last March, Gesca sold six regional papers, including Quebec City’s Le Soleil and Ottawa’s Le Droit, to a new company led by former federal cabinet minister Martin Cauchon, turning its focus solely to La Presse.

Transcontinental currently prints about 80,000 copies of La Presse each weekday and 120,000 on Saturday.

“There is an impact, obviously,” said Jennifer McCaughey, Transcontinental’s senior director of investor relations and external communications. “It’s a loss of volume, but when you put it in perspective, it’s a very minimal impact financially to our overall operations.”

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