How Le Devoir has remained in the black, even amidst COVID

While advertising has been decreasing in the last four months, subscription revenue and donations have played a crucial part in the business model.
Le Devoir 2

Le Devoir has reported its profitability for the third consecutive year. It’s the fifth year in the last seven that the French-language newspaper has been in the black, which the independent says is a remarkable feat in these turbulent times.

Brian Myles, Le Devoir general manager, says the foundation for the publication’s success has come down to strategic choices made over the last several decades. It was ahead of the curve in terms of paywalls – it put up its first paywall 25 years ago, long before the likes of The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star made it a standard. Content was free except for a few top stories that were locked. If you wanted to unlock the stories, you had to pay for the content and subscribe.

“We were involved in the subscription model early on and decided to stick,” he tells MiC. “The secret recipe for success is quite simple, readers provide six dollars out of ten. Whether readers buy copies at the store, subscribe to the print edition or subscribe to the digital edition, all those together gather six dollars out of 10. If I put donations in the mix, it’s close to seven out 10 dollars. It all comes from readers willing to pay for content.”

While Le Devoir still values its clients, Myles says it’s crucial to not be entirely dependent on advertising, and that free content will not be a sustainable model for media in the long term.

Myles says, “We do not believe in a world where you can finance your activities by advertising. You need subscribers in the mix. So, our product is tailored for the needs of the audience – and the choices we make are first and foremost for the readers.”

It’s a good time to not be as dependent on advertisers. Myles says all local sales are down by drastic levels, and he believes that what has been lost so far is lost for good.

“Less than 30% of our revenues come from advertising but it’s a 30% we want to keep. We were able to grow a bit from year to year in the past two years because of native content.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Le Devoir has seen major increases in advertising from the Quebec government. “They increased their budget for the news media up to three times and four times what they usually spend in traditional media. Advertising has been decreasing in the last four months – from 10 to 20% – depending on the month, but the Quebec government has been quite helpful.”

Tax deductions from Ottawa and the province of Quebec also helped Le Devoir come up with $1.58 million of net profit in 2019. Excluding tax deductions, Myles said, the publication would have still broken even, or lost no more than $40,000. With the tax deductions, he says, it was able to hire more people and generate more revenue through new programs.

Le Devoir had a staff of 110 people at the beginning of 2019 and ended the year with 121, with that increase including reporters, which Myles says is crucial – quality journalism keeps people subscribing.

Myles says, “If you want to know how to make it work, it works when you put your subscribers in the mix. The Globe and Mail and Le Devoir do that on a constant basis. We were able to get ahead of things [with the paywall]. It goes back to quality – quality of reporting, quality of content. There’s no compromise to be made in that regard. The New York Times, Le Monde – every news media that goes for the subscription model and is committed to their readers are doing better than other media who rely on free content.”