Based in Brussels, Le Soir is the major quality newspaper in the French-speaking community of Belgium. It faces as many critical problems as its peers, and we have experimented with a lot of solutions.
In many cases, our experiments were the key for improvement. And sometimes we failed. It was not easy to accept (and claim) our own errors. But here are a few do’s and don’ts from our experiences:
1. Don’t think print (while pretending to think digital). All editors will think that it is obvious. They are convinced that what they are doing on digital is already ambitious.
Until a couple of months ago, I was also certain of this, as Le Soir started its digital work very early in Belgium. We thought (wrongly) that we had done all the things an editor can do to re-profile the journalists: training, schooling, offering devices and connections at home, etc.
Now, I am convinced that during all these years we were just translating print into digital. We spread printed news via the Web. We did not produce news digitally. We were completely neglecting the specific things we could create with Web tools.
Some questions we could ask ourselves:
When was the last time we used the Web to gather news data? The last time we created specific content for mobile? The last time we considered a piece of news as a story living across all platforms? How do we promote our content through social media?
If you can answer all the questions, you are more clever than we were!
2. Do rejuvenate. From year to year, Le Soir had to struggle to adapt to the new environment. The newsroom downsizing and recruitment freeze caused an aging of the journalist pool.
After the last drastic workforce reduction plan, management decided to hire young journalists without any experience — roughly 10% of our editorial workforce. The goal of this project, called “#25,” was to bring a breath of fresh air to the way we cover the news, choose topics, deliver our content on various channels.
With strict coaching, we engaged the new journalists to assume important responsibilities in the newspaper. Instead of keeping them in the shadows of their older peers, we decided to write a story about them.
Can we measure the concrete results? Truth must be told, it is a little bit too early to share hard figures. To me, the intangible results are far more important than the measurable ones.
These young journalists changed the way their older colleagues now cover the news.
We clearly defined the boundaries and, consequently, old and young alike never consider each other as competitors. The wages could also have been considered as a point of unfair competition, of course.
But the older employees were convinced for a long time that the newsroom had to be rejuvenated and, by doing this, the goal of management was not to reduce the costs.
Speaking of wages, we tried to be very clear with the young journalists. They started as freelance (with a clear progression of the their fees) and then progressively they joined the staff.
3. Don’t overprice content. Year after year, we increased the price of our printed newspapers and realise that the value of content had fallen tragically. It was a terrible mistake.
Now, in our digital model, we have accepted the idea that only a few readers will pay for our content. Basically, we have to maintain other sources of revenue (advertising) linked to free content.
What is our strategy for paid content?
First, we must keep on enriching the news, our core business.
Second, we must increase the tangible benefits linked to our subscriptions. One of our best (and most profitable projects) consisted of selling a package formed of three things: a device (a tablet in this case), 3G data, and, of course, the subscription to the newspaper.
Third, we must work on the intangible values linked to our brand. It is why, for instance, we have been developing our events.
4. Do cultivate new communities of readers. All of us know that we are selling ads at rates at ever-declining rates. Our strategy has always been to associate specific ads to special communities.
For instance, we built up a site dedicated to the iPhone. More than one year ago, we created a study about social trends. We picked up, among other things, positivism, slow motion, and the celebration of imperfections.
At the end of the day, we decided to build a site called “Demain, la Terre” (“Tomorrow, the Earth”). It is more than creating content to attract advertising. It’s at the crosspoint of journalism, CSR, and commerce.