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Quebec’s La Presse is surviving in a unique media market by trading news for data

News

The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

La Presse has served news to Quebecers since 1884, but anyone hoping to purchase a physical paper today is out of luck. The publication finished transitioning to digital-only in 2017, part of a massive restructuring necessary to try to ensure its modern survival in its homogenous French-speaking province. 

“It’s been an institution across Quebec,” says Patrick White, a journalism professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal. “They were the first publication in Quebec to move to a digital-only platform, and now they’re reaping the benefits. In two or three years, I’m not sure we’re going to have print editions of newspapers in Quebec. The end is in sight.” 

Just one year later, in 2018, La Presse became a non-profit, another prophetic decision other Canadian publications have since mimicked. The move allowed La Presse to solicit more philanthropic and government aid while ditching a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders. Subsequently, La Presse became one of the first publications in Canada to qualify for registered journalism organization status, allowing it to issue charitable tax receipts to donors beginning in 2020.   

“The [move to non-profit] was essential to diversify our revenue streams and ensure our sustainability,” La Presse’s vice president of communications and philanthropy Florence Turpault-Desroches tells The Hub. “It was the culmination of a major transformation of our products and practices [over the course of a decade].” 

La Presse now boasts an average of nearly four million monthly readers and a $40 million reserve fund. Most notably, its 2023 annual report claimed rising ad revenues. Turpault-Desroches says about 75 percent of La Presse’s income comes from advertising, a statistic similar to what old print newspapers drew from ads. How is that possible at a time when most digital advertising is about as profitable as scrounging through couch cushions? As you likely didn’t guess, it’s largely thanks to a tablet app

Loading the digital paper 

La Presse+, which is available on Apple and Android tablets, is a free app with a sleek layout.   

“Every day, 240,000 readers open the app,” Turpault-Desroches says. “The vast majority of our advertising revenue comes from our app.” 

Turpault-Desroches credits its success to “engaging, interactive, and playful” ads. But while La Presse+ is well-designed, the fact that those ads can’t be batted away with ad blockers like on the web would seem a likelier cause. 

“The [video ads] on La Presse+, they can’t be skipped. It brings millions in revenue each year,” White says. 

That revenue pays for La Presse’s newsroom while keeping its work free to readers. 

Compared to other modern media, La Presse has been on a bit of a hiring spree. White notes that it recently took on nine new journalists to expand its regional coverage across Quebec, and even began operating a small Washington bureau to cover the American election.

“They have a newsroom with over 200 journalists, that’s a luxury these days,” White says. “They’re reaping the benefits of investing in the tablet-first model. The average readership time on weekends is 50 minutes. That’s what advertisers want to hear.” 

But a $40 million iPad app is not a cure-all for what ails Canadian media. In 2015, two years after La Presse+ launched, the Toronto Star debuted Star Touch, a copycat app that employed La Presse’s platform and technical expertise. Two years later, Star Touch was dead, 30 employees were axed, and the Star’s own $40 million investment was aflame. Less than 60,000 of the Star’s two million readers used the app weekly

“It appears [La Presse] won’t be able to sell the template to other news organisations,” says White. “La Presse’s dream was to sell [their app model] worldwide. That didn’t work out.” 

Turpault-Desroches says La Presse “made the transition [to the tablet app] very gradually so that our readers could adjust, and then we completely abandoned print, which the Toronto Star did not wish to do.” 

In 2016, Toronto journalist David Topping argued the Star should have started small with Star Touch, rather than investing millions and reorganising its entire newsroom before readers had even seen the product. Ironically, the Star’s publisher blamed the Touch layoffs on “uncertainty about what was needed in the marketplace.” 

Regardless of the cause, that Star Touch flopped while La Presse+ thrives speaks to the urgency with which La Presse targeted readers and the unique Canadian market in which it operates. There are many ways to get English-language news about Ontario across Canada; there are increasingly few ways to get French-language news about Quebec. La Presse remains one of the most prominent ways.

La Belle Province: a unique market

While no modern media landscape could be accused of thriving, White paints a picture of a province of Quebec profitable for regional powerhouses with forward-thinking strategies, but brutal to indies, upstarts, and generic national brands. 

“With layoffs at Bell Media Quebec, Quebecor, and CTV News Montreal, last year was terrible,” White says. “Metro went bankrupt in summer 2023; that meant the loss of 17 weeklies and 75 journalist positions across Quebec. This year is much better. Advertising revenues are steady, and big players like La Devoir and La Presse are profitable.” 

That rosiness is relative. White says Quebec is still a “tough news environment,” and that 2024 may be especially rough for Les Coops de l’information, which publishes Ottawa-Gatineau’s Le Droit, Sherbrooke’s La Tribune, and four other regional papers that once lived alongside La Presse under the Power Corporation umbrella. 

Power Corp. is owned by the powerful Desmarais family, which has long had business and family ties to politicians like former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, and Jean Chrétien, and is a strong federalist voice in Quebec. La Presse was owned by the Desmaraises for more than 50 years. The family gifted La Presse $50 million as part of its transition to non-profit status.  

“The issue with the Quebec market is that it’s small,” White says. “It’s under nine million people. It’s very difficult to launch a news organisation and make it profitable.” 

Quebec’s French-language market is isolated within Canada. While that means less outside competition from Anglos, it also means less room to grow. Storied publications attract supplementary philanthropic revenue. Newcomers likely won’t.   

La Devoir’s profits are mainly related to tax credits, you don’t want that as a business model,” White says. “So the non-profit model has been a game-changer. People are starting to realize that if you invest in news it becomes a public service. Nonprofits can reinvest the money they make back into the organisation.” 

In White’s view, La Presse’s non-profit model is almost essential. “If you have a good mix of crowdfunding, philanthropy, advertising revenue, if you host events, if you’re inventive with newsletters, podcasts, and videos, I think that’s a formula for success. But it’s not a business for profits,” he admits.

The La Presse newsroom in Montreal, Quebec. Photo courtesy of La Presse.

Quebecois news media enjoys generous tax credits—the federal government offers a credit for 35 percent of a journalist’s salary (up to $29,750), which Quebec’s provincial government matches up to $26,250. When factoring other federal initiatives supporting the sector, Quebec media outlets could conceivably cover upwards of 90 percent of their journalists’ payroll costs.

While Turpault-Desroches notes these “standardised tax credit programs are available to the entire industry,” they can be fickle. White believes La Presse’s advertising income puts it in a better position to absorb a potential end to these credits under future governments than most publications. But he warns there are still risks to their ad-first model. 

“They organize events for donors, online panels, discussions relevant to Quebec readers. They’re against paywalls, they’ll never have one. But they’re going to have to diversify, maybe make a bigger venture into TikTok and Snapchat to monetize more content.” 

Regardless of which politician occupies 24 Sussex Drive over the next decade, generations will shift and their news-consumption habits will shift with them. With that inevitable change in mind, La Presse is already working to onboard, and advertise to, the next generation of readers. 

The kids these days—and their data 

Gen Z overwhelmingly prefers mobile news platforms, and better mobile engagement is on La Presse’s 2024 agenda. White says La Presse “did really well on its website’s mobile optimization, and with [its mobile app]. The revenue is bigger on La Presse+, but they’re getting good traffic on mobile. Reaching the new generation with diversified content will be a challenge in the next few years.” 

But La Presse has already taken the first steps to meet it.

“They have started to hire younger journalists, that’s a shift,” White says. “They’re broadening their horizons as well. They’re [no longer] just hiring French Canadians from Quebec City and Montreal. But they’re going to need to double down on video content to reach the new generation.” 

Data will also be crucial to La Presse’s future. Given Gen Z’s blasé attitude towards data privacy, any young readers who can be drawn to the publication could be ripe for targeted advertising. La Presse doesn’t sell its user data, and claims to “adhere to the strictest rules regarding data collection and usage,” but frequent readers must make a free account so their data will be offered to La Presse’s databases. 

“We have what we call an ‘authentication reader wall,’” La Presse’s Turpault-Desroches says. “Creating reader accounts helps us recognize readers, personalise advertising, and personalise our relationship with our donors. The reader wall allows us to obtain data, and to better know our audience.” 

Gen Z appears more likely to read news and tolerate its ads if they’re personalised, so a free publication with data-driven layouts and ads targeting user interests could be the future of news consumption for a generation unaccustomed to paying for it. 

“Today, 45 percent of our advertising revenue is generated by data-related ads,” Turpault-Desroches says. “Four years ago, it was 0 percent.”

La Presse continues to obsessively study how, where, and when its readers approach the news. La Presse+ has been available to Apple desktop and laptop users since last fall, in the publication’s latest attempt to capture more non-tablet readers. Mobile will be the next frontier. 

In a way, La Presse has recreated the ad-driven revenue model of its print predecessor. However, instead of each reader paying for a subscription, donors, philanthropists, and tax credits collectively cover what advertising cannot. White believes the Quebec market is “too unique” for the rest of Canada to simply copy its approach, but in Quebec, “a nation within a nation”, La Presse, “a market within a market,” could thrive by exchanging knowledge for data. 

The Future of News series is supported by readers like you and Meta.

A major loss of income for mothers is driving Canada’s record-low fertility

News

The dire earnings impact from Canadian women having children is one of the major factors influencing their fertility decisions and Canada’s now lowest-ever fertility rate.

Canadian women are now experiencing on average a nearly 40 percent drop in earnings in the first five years after giving birth, which experts say is a leading factor in the record-low birthrate of 1.33 children per woman. 

“It really boils down to what is the cost that mom is taking on being a parent? It’s not dads taking on that cost,” says Tammy Schirle, a professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University.

The female-male disparity in income loss is demonstrated in the two maps of Canada below, both using an identical colour scale.

This data demonstrates that Canadian women who have children can experience significant income loss over time. 

This January, Statistics Canada reported that this country’s 2022 fertility rate fell to an average of 1.33 children per woman, representing a year-over-year decline of 7.4 percent, the greatest since the 7.6 percent decline in 1972, during the tail end of the baby boom.

Transitory economic trends such as inflation and recessions have had a low historical impact on national fertility rates. What really mattered, says Schirle, is the 1960s shift in social norms and new choices presented to women regarding family planning in the form of the birth control pill. Both came with women gaining control over their own fertility and economic prospects.

“I tend to focus on that choice: what are (women’s) opportunities and what are their constraints?" she describes.

The maps above define those constraints. It uses the “Child Atlas of Child Penalties,” a dataset published this March by University of Calgary economic professors Stefan Staubli and Jean-William Laliberté and PhD student Sencer Karademir. 

According to their research, the national average change in earnings in the first five years of parenthood are decreasing for both women and men, but by stark degrees: a decrease of nearly 40 percent (39.1 percent) for women and just 0.5 percent for men.

Given that the average Canadian earns $300,000 over five years, women would thus earn $120,000 less in the first five years of parenthood (before taxes). Men would only earn $1,500 less. 

New mothers' greatest earning declines and new fathers' greatest earning increases in the first five years of parenthood are seen most starkly in Western Canada. Southern Manitoba is experiencing the greatest average earnings decrease for new Canadian mothers, by nearly 60 percent. Sudbury has both Ontario’s greatest average earnings decline for mothers (-42 percent) and increase for fathers (+8.6 percent). Saskatchewan is home to Canada’s greatest average increase in earnings for new fathers (+11.5 percent). 

Most cases of income loss, says Schirle, can be attributed to instances where social norms and childcare institutions aren’t strong enough to support women’s decision to work after having a child. Even mothers who immediately return to work are still compelled to decline competitive yet time-consuming positions to instead make time for childcare in a manner that men are not. 

“If you have a job where you have to stick around until the boss leaves…it may have been higher paying, but you can’t take that job,” she says. The same is true for shift or weekend work Schirle adds.

Last year, Harvard professor Claudia Goldin won a Nobel economics prize for her work studying the trends above: that even if an American man and a woman are on an identical education and career trajectory, the introduction of children will permanently reduce the income of the woman significantly more than man.

The greatest long-run cost, Schirle says, is to women’s pensions and saving ambitions. A 2012 University of California study showed that an expensive housing market can delay women having their first child by three to four years. 

“The main cost of children is really the forgone earnings,” corroborates Jean-William Laliberté, one of the academics behind the “Child Atlas of Child Penalties” study.

“It’s not what you pay out of pocket, but the money that you would have realised but now you don’t because you don’t have the ability to work as much as before,” he says, describing the “child penalty” of his study. 

Giada Gambino uses her smartphone as her mother Aggie and twin sister Giuliana look on while they work on math worksheets at the dining room table in their home Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Spring, Texas. Michael Wyke/AP Photo.

Mothers that perform the best when it comes to retaining their earnings can be found in Quebec. Laliberté points to Quebec’s childcare policies including its universal model introduced in 1997. These policies, he says, make it significantly easier for mothers to work in higher-paid positions. Particularly mandatory 3-5 p.m. after-school care in elementary schools. 

The “Quebec Model” of childcare and family benefits inspired the federal Liberal government’s $10-a-day childcare program, says Laliberté, which was pitched following the COVID-19 pandemic to see mothers remain in work. The program however has faced major rollout issues.

However, while certain government policies may allow mothers to retain greater earnings, other studies suggest that these early childhood support programs actually have negative effects on kids, which persist into adolescence.

“The Long-Run Impacts of a Universal Child Care Program,” published by Michael Baker, Jonathan Gruber, and Kevin Milligan in a 2019 edition of the American Economic Journal concluded that Quebec’s policy contributed somewhat to a negative impact on children's non-cognitive skills. 

Effects included anxiety, aggression, poor behaviour and attention, or later-in-life criminality. Although the causes of the program’s poor outcomes weren’t the subject of their study, Milligan says they could include the stress of having two parents entirely engaged in work and their reduced ability to coordinate doctor visits or other means of external care. 

“The evidence is pretty strong that the Quebec childcare program had a really large impact on women being able to work. From that, you can draw a direct line to an impact on women’s role in the family, and also in their life path in having a stronger attachment to the labour force. That’s an important thing I would like to view as positive,” says Milligan. 

“On the other hand, we and other authors have found some negative impacts on the non-cognitive outcomes [of children],” he adds. “I think there are ways to think about the design of the actual program itself to account for the fact that there might be risks of [poor behaviours].”