The cruel irony of this week's decision by La Presse to kill its weekday print edition is that the newsprint business once made Quebec, and the Desmarais family, very rich.
Montreal is still home to the world's largest newsprint producer, Resolute Forest Products Inc., which is the product of so many mergers that most of us have lost count. Among them is the Desmaraises' sale of Consolidated-Bathurst Inc. to Resolute's predecessor company in 1989, when the Internet was still science fiction and newspapers were fat and profitable. Such was the optimism then that "Connie Bathurst" sold at a 50-per-cent premium to its stock-market price.
The late family patriarch Paul Desmarais bought La Presse and Consolidated-Bathurst nearly simultaneously in the late 1960s, when the symbiosis between newspapers and newsprint producers was tight. But sons Paul Jr. and André Desmarais, who now jointly hold the reins at the family holding company Power Corp. of Canada, have just shown how the two industries are now working at cross purposes as La Presse hastens its transition to an all-digital product.
Since the early 2013 launch of the paper's two-year-old tablet edition, La Presse+, the 131-year-old broadsheet has transformed its newsroom as bosses inculcate a tablet-first culture and hire dozens of techies. While almost every newspaper in North America has seen a decline in print readership, weekday circulation at La Presse has been cut in half to 81,000 in barely two years.
"The decline in print circulation is voluntary," says Charles Côté, a La Presse journalist and spokesman for the paper's unionized employees. "Since 2013, the message from management has been clear: We work first and foremost for the tablet."
That appears to be the opposite of the approach taken by most North American newspapers, where tablet editions are still marginal contributors to the top line and print still accounts for the bulk of advertising revenue. While most tablet editions are subscriber-based, La Presse's version is free, which might help explain why it boasts such high readership figures.
La Presse+ claims 188,000 daily "opens" and cumulative weekly readership of 460,000. That blows just about everyone else out of the water – even the category-killing Wall Street Journal's tablet had just 116,000 subscribers in 2014 – and has newspaper executives from across the world beating a path to La Presse publisher Guy Crevier's door seeking pointers.
La Presse+ has engagement levels that rival or exceed those of print – with readers spending about 44 minutes on the tablet edition on weekdays. Tablet users are, hence, more coveted by advertisers than so-called "fly-by" readers who scan newspaper websites or smartphone apps. Many young La Presse+ readers have never laid their eyes on the paper's print version.
The question other North American newspaper publishers are asking is whether Quebec is as much an exception in the way its inhabitants consume news as it is in the brands of cars they drive or the soft drinks they imbibe. Star Touch, the newly launched Toronto Star tablet edition based on the La Presse+ technology, could be the canary in the coal mine.
Whatever happens elsewhere, there is no turning back at La Presse. André Desmarais, who has always had a bigger hand in the family's media businesses than his brother, is said to be an enthusiastic fan of the tablet edition – far preferring it to the paper's harder-to-navigate website. Power Corp. threatened to shut down the paper entirely in 2009 without major concessions from the unions. But, in 2013, Mr. Desmarais thanked employees for "saving La Presse" by changing collective agreements to facilitate the transition to a tablet-first business model.
The bottom line at La Presse, which is a blip in Power's sprawling corporate empire, has always been considered secondary for the fiercely federalist Desmarais family to the influence that owning Quebec's main broadsheet has afforded it. But that might be changing, as social media drive political communications and a third Desmarais generation is being groomed to take over at Power one day.
In March, Power sold its six other dailies to former federal cabinet minister Martin Cauchon. It's still unclear whether the print editions of all those papers will survive.
Quebec has been at the centre of North American newsprint production practically since the commodity's mid-19th-century invention. But that is no longer much to brag about, as companies such as Resolute scramble to manage what seem like never-ending declines in demand.
The move by the hometown La Presse must feel like an especially cruel cut.