Jean-Nicolas Baylet, Managing Director of the La Dépêche du Midi Group, draws up an economic and advertising report and shares his strategic vision with us. After a year and a half of struggle, La Dépêche du Midi Group will see its September 2021 turnover return to September 2019 levels. Despite a complex economic context, the group is continuing its development through several axes including the purchase and integration of ViàOccitanie, the doubling of its audience, the recruitment of digital subscribers and the launch of a new format for its newspaper on 1st October 2021. Interview.
David Sallinen – How did Groupe La Dépêche du Midi get through the dark days? What lessons did you learn on the way from 2020 and the first half of 2021?
Jean-Nicolas Baylet – Unlike certain sectors such as airlines, events or tourism, which have suffered greatly, we have come through this period relatively well for several reasons. The first of these is that we have been able to count on the loyalty of our readers throughout this period. It is true that at the heart of the crisis, we saw our circulation drop by up to 25%, but our readers continued to read us regardless of the medium (print or digital). Obviously, the area where we suffered the most was advertising, where we saw a 65% drop in our revenues at the heart of the crisis.
Despite a complicated context, we were able to quickly implement the necessary economic measures that enabled us to maintain our financial equilibrium. It is true that for several years our sector has been used to suffering the “media crisis” but being confronted with that it did not panic; on the contrary, it was able to adapt quickly.
This period, of health crisis and confinements, was favourable to information in general and to local information in particular, since many readers needed very pragmatic information. “What’s going on around me? Where can I get tested? What is closing or staying open? How do I get to the vaccination centres? These were all topics that made it possible to put proximity at the centre of the game. Thus, from the very first days of the first containment, audiences increased tenfold and the number of subscribers multiplied threefold. We felt a strong need for information. It is this need for information that has enabled us to get through this crisis on a relatively even keel, even if this crisis has had a negative and significant impact on our revenues, with an 11% drop in turnover for the year 2020. Which, to put that in perspective, is the biggest drop in the group’s history.
DS – Has this period of crisis accelerated change and made us aware of the transformations that need to be carried out?
JNB – Yes and no. Let me explain. Yes, this period has been an accelerator. Indeed, the media sector has been undergoing a transformation for several years to move from a traditional model of producing a printed newspaper to a digital model. Our group has a 150-year history, that is to say 150 years of functioning with all its habits and sometimes with all its slowness. For several years now, we have been working to instil other, more start-up-oriented logics. And in 2021, we have ostensibly taken a new step in this direction.
Furthermore, adaptability is the key word in our organisations and it has been fairly well accepted by the staff and teams of La Dépêche for several years now. This has enabled us, during this crisis, to respond with great composure and professionalism to a new and complex situation. So yes, it allowed us to take a step forward but no, it was not a realisation because we already had that.
The challenge of the new formula is to continue to stick to the desires of the readership.Jean-Nicolas Baylet
DS – The highlight for your group in 2020 will have been to almost double the digital audiences. How do you explain this success?
JNB – With audiences up by more than 95%, this has obviously enabled us to build loyalty and renew our readership.
In fact, in 2020, thanks to the work of the editorial team, we were able to capitalise on our digital brand. Indeed, at a time when much of civil society was at a standstill and we were asking ourselves whether to continue publishing, we made the choice to continue our mission every day. Readers were very grateful for this. For example, when the Post Office suspended its service, we continued to carry the newspaper every day. From then on, we received expressions of affection from people who put on their door: “Thank you to La Dépêche” or “Thank you to my carrier for continuing to inform me”. This is very strong in terms of credibility and trust, it shows the links we have built with our readers.
DS – This October 1st you launch the new format of La Dépêche to mark the paper’s 151st anniversary. What guided your desire to reinvent the printed newspaper in a world of communication dominated by the mobile and social networks?
JNB – It had been 13 years since the format had evolved and it was necessary to bring in modernity. It’s not because we are present on a traditional medium that we have to let it get old or stale. In reality, it is always a complicated exercise because we know that our readership is not too welcoming of revolution. So our leitmotiv has been: “evolution, not revolution”.
The challenge is therefore to continue to stick to the new codes and when a format gets old, it gets a facelift to correspond to its time and respond to the desires of the readership. This is what guided this new formula.
Another important point: because of the regrouping of editions during the crisis, we tested and developed our product, particularly the front page. Before, we had a patchwork front page with several entries. We therefore successfully tested a stronger, more visual editorial choice on the front page as part of the new formula.
This change is really a major element because it is not easy for an editorial office to put forward a strong editorial choice every day to deal with it in depth. This implies taking a position and a bias. What’s more, our reader tests have confirmed this.
We are also taking advantage of this new formula to update our flatplanning, in order to reallocate our resources from print to digital, because that’s the way the story goes.
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DS – Digital-first or reverse publishing is at the heart of the transformation of traditional media, could you tell us more about your plans?
JNB – At La Dépêche, for several years now, we have been publishing articles first on digital and then on print. Behind these questions of reverse publishing, there are tools that we are developing that will enable us to accelerate this transformation, including for articles that are intended to be only in print.
In addition, in recent years, professional practices have evolved and information is now increasingly dissociated from the medium. But let’s go beyond the concept of digital-first, let’s focus on quality information and then on media questions. Up until now, there were media that depended on one medium. Now we have to be multimedia and multi-frequency. So it was important for our editorial staff to adopt these codes and to be able to differentiate the information from its web, newspaper or mobile support.
DS – After the takeover of the three ViàOccitanie channels, how do you intend to articulate print, web and now local TV to better inform and engage your audiences?
JNB – There are several obvious synergies. The first is the synergy of information. For several years now, we have been integrating video and now audio into our newsrooms. Today, around 300 videos are produced per month at the level of the La Dépêche group. These videos will be available to ViàOccitanie, which will be able to exploit the rushes and use them to do its job, and the reverse will also be true. Thus, the videos produced by ViàOccitanie will be included on the websites of the La Dépêche group, which will enable them to reach a larger audience. We are really in a win-win situation.
The second synergy concerns the commercial field. These television channels only had five sales representatives in the whole of the Occitan region and from now on they will be able to count on a network of 150 sales representatives, which will generate new income. In short, we are going to link ViàOccitanie’s video offer to our own video offer in order to complete our video offers but also to better respond to the demands of advertisers, some of whom have more “television” needs, by renting them our ViàOccitanie sets, for example.
Thus, at a key moment when the media are totally multimedia and mix text, image and sound, we will be able to deploy commercial logics that make sense.
Finally, the third synergy is digital. Given that the La Dépêche group is the leader in local and regional information, we are going to provide ViàOccitanie with an audience springboard and allow this media brand to exist in a significant way in our territory.
We should reach 25% of the turnover generated by digital by 2021.Jean-Nicolas Baylet
DS – Did you take advantage of the Regional elections to test collaborations between La Dépêche and ViàOccitanie? What were the results?
JNB – Absolutely! Even though we were already partners before the takeover, the synergy between us was able to reach its full potential with the June 2021 Régionales (regional elections). Their audiences were multiplied by 3 compared to what they could have known before. And all this was made possible because we worked in synergy via our websites.
Indeed, on D-Day, we commented on the news live on our websites and we also have a live broadcast on our TV channels. The next day, the news is repeated in the newspaper. So, we have a real synergy!
DS – DS – What will be the share of digital in the turnover of Groupe La Dépêche du Midi in 2021?
JNB – As we have seen, 2021 will be an accelerator. We should exceed 25% of turnover generated by digital, especially as our events activity has also been digitised.
DS – What is your vision on the evolution of the media business model? Where do you see it going?
JNB – I don’t rule out anything. Today, I don’t think it is appropriate, or viable to say that we will choose an “all free” or “all paid” model.
A few years ago, digital advertising was not very profitable, but today we are seeing a trend towards a revaluation. The excesses of some unserious players who used to run advertising in unsuitable contexts are behind us. Advertisers are no longer mistaken.
It should be noted that a certain number of legislations have been passed, a certain number of labels have been set up, as well as the RGPD directives for the protection of Internet users which have been implemented. As a result, we have seen the overall advertising inventory shrink and prices rise. And today we have reached significant levels of digital advertising revenue.
At the moment, digital advertising represents between 15 and 20% of our advertising revenue. At the local level, the share of digital turnover is around 20%. For extra-local, the share is 50%. In short, at national level, digital is in the process of overtaking the historical print turnover and as the local level often reacts with a few years’ delay, the share of digital turnover will grow and help make our business viable.
DS – Digital subscriptions have become a key issue for the press. What about the development of digital subscriptions? Does this conquest of subscribers allow you to rejuvenate your readership?
JNB – For digital subscriptions and subscriptions in general, we are looking at double-digit growth in 2021. We count this figure in two ways. On the one hand, the print subscribers who have activated their digital account, which is 40% of our subscriber portfolio. And on the other hand, the purely digital subscriptions, which represents 20% of the subscriber portfolio. Our print subscribers are on average between 65 and 70 years old. Our Premium subscribers who have access to the PDF version of the newspaper are between 60 and 65 years old. Finally, our Digital + subscribers are between 50 and 60 years old. The development of digital subscriptions has enabled us to rejuvenate our readership and this is only the beginning.
By the end of September 2021, we will be back to the level of the end of September 2019 in terms of revenuesJean-Nicolas Baylet
DS – What are your next areas of development for 2022?
JNB – For several years now, I have had a simple imperative: we must stop the decline in turnover. This is our main challenge.
Our turnover is mainly made up of content sales (mailed subscriptions, ported, digital, single issue sales, etc.) and advertising. As far as content sales are concerned, we have areas for growth in this area, particularly in digital subscriptions. This is why we are working more and more on our data. We are using predictive algorithms to anticipate the maturity path of our prospects, to understand when they will be mature enough to become customers and also to anticipate the risks of churn. This stage is the next one for us.
As for advertising, four years ago we made the important choice to no longer be simply a media agency but to become a communications agency. This gamble is bearing fruit because when we look at our results for 2020 and the first half of 2021, we are really bucking the trend of the regional daily press. In fact, our agency is getting the best scores because we are convinced by our approach, which consists of better understanding the client. The objective is no longer to sell them media but to accompany them in their communication strategy, even if it does not involve our media.
The fact that we are the main player, that we work with the client on their strategy, their message, their packaging and, if necessary, their media plan, means that in the end we have a unique relationship of proximity and trust. The GAFAs will never be able to take this away from us because we are the only ones to have this proximity, this advice. As a result, we realise that even if we continue to see a drop in turnover on our traditional media, we are developing on the sale of services, in the world of communication and events, which today allows us to practically stabilise our turnover. As proof, at the end of September 2021, we will be back to the level we were at the end of September 2019.
DS – The media are obliged to evolve and adapt to the new environment both in terms of their offers and their economic model. What can they no longer be and what should they become?
JNB – The answer is very clear. A media can no longer be a single medium, it must become multimedia. Before, there were paper media, TV, radio; then there were web media.
Today, media brands must be able to address all media through quality content. At the same time, the time of information has accelerated considerably and from now on, we must not lose our DNA, our identity and therefore our quality, because this is what unites us with our clients. Moreover, the media that really count, including in the digital sphere, are essentially from the traditional media. This proves that providing information is a profession and that quality cannot be faked.
Finally, let us not forget that the next revolution will be the audio revolution. Let’s imagine for a moment that the French car fleet is connected to the Internet. People will no longer necessarily listen to their usual radio(s) but will select their audio content through platforms, and media like ours will be able to access it. In the future, other information media and platforms will not fail to arrive and the challenge will be to provide quality content to all channels.
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