By Olivia Snaije
At least French kids are reading newspapers. There is always a business model that works against the odds. France’s book publisher Play Bac presse, which also publishes three newspapers for children, is simultaneously celebrating its 25th anniversary, and its founding paper, Mon Quotidien’s (My Daily) 15th birthday. At a time when newspapers worldwide are struggling, and in France in particular, Play Bac’s three daily papers for children -– Le Petit Quotidien (My Little Daily), for ages 6 and up, Mon Quotidien, for children at least ten years old, and l’Actu (the News) for teens, 14 and up –- have a 150,000 children subscribers, a number that has been stable for the past five years. Sales of the paper represent a little less than half of Pay Bac’s 35 million euros of annual revenue.
The idea behind the newspapers is simple: get children to read, at least ten minutes a day. Francois Dufour, one of the founders, as well as the papers’ editor and public face admits with a grin, “Moms love me.”
A financial weekly, as well as a weekly paper in English (now with 25,000 subscribers), were added to the stable last year. The papers are no longer than eight pages; the style is simple and colorful, featuring big headlines, lots of sidebars, photographs, quotes and a few cartoons.
Dufour and his team circumvented common circulation and distribution problems from the outset, opting to sell the newspapers only by subscription. Schoolteachers and parents were enlisted to help.
Now, at the beginning of each year, a huge direct marketing campaign mails some 12 million copies of the Le Petit Quotidien and Mon Quotidien out to teachers, with copies going to every teacher in France. The campaign is primarily aimed at first to fifth graders (because they are in a single class with one teacher). Teachers receive one copy of the newspaper on the first day and 25 copies the next day with 25 subscription forms. The hope is the children will take the forms home and parents will subscribe.
“Everyone is looking for ways to keep kids reading,” said Dufour. “The positioning of the newspapers is, unintentionally, ‘anti-internet,’ because the parents are fed up with children always being on the internet. [Parents] support reading like it’s a species in danger of going extinct. Aside from a few books, like Harry Potter or Twilight, the newspapers are the only reading on paper that the kids enjoy. Otherwise, they only like computers.”
This, inevitably, raises the question of the iPad. Dufour recently cancelled his subscription to Le Monde newspaper and says he’s “addicted” to reading newspapers on his iPad (“it’s quicker, easier and fun”). Play Bac is launching its own iPad app in January and it will be free for subscribers. And though the iPad versions will include slide shows and videos, Dufour is not at all convinced that children or even teens will abandon the paper versions of the dailies. And, as Dufour says, he doesn’t have a parent looking over his shoulder who might be unwilling to pay for yet another “digital distraction” that might prevent him from doing his homework.
“So far, the children are not with me on the digital [edition] paper,” said Dufour. “And parents are afraid. They might think it’s a way of reading the newspaper, but it’s more likely they’ll see it as just another gateway to Facebook . . . If I had to bet, until every family has an iPad, and it has become like having a dog at home, I suspect the [print] paper will hold up very well.”
Before the iPad was launched, Play Bac conducted test marketing with children asking which they would prefer — digital or paper?
“Eighty percent said they preferred paper. When you ask children why they like to read the paper, they say ‘I like to read it in bed, on the bus going to school, while eating a snack, or in my bath’.”
When Dufour and his co-founders began Mon Quotidien in 1995, they were reinvesting funds that they had made following the licensing of Play Bac’s invention, Les Incollables (which is known in the US as Brain Quest deck cards). Workman, the licensee, has so far sold over 30 million copies of Brain Quest.
Given Play Bac’s record of sticking with a winning formula (the Quotidien newspapers haven’t changed their look since they were launched), Dufour figures they still have a few good years ahead of them. It is interesting to note that Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China all publish children’s papers, but in the West, the Quotidien dailies seem to be on their own.
Dufour recently picked up several licensees in Hong Kong and the Middle East in the form of start-ups by mothers of former readers. In Hong Kong, two papers are published for ages seven and ten, both in English; in the Middle East the paper is published in Arabic for seven-year-olds and up. The papers take half their content from Mon Quotidien, and fill the remainder with local news.
Back in France, subscriptions are lowest for the teen version, l’Actu, though of the three papers, it has the highest rate of retention.
“Adolescents keep their subscription longer because there is no paper for them afterwards, So they read it from ages 14 to 17 or 18,” said Dufour, suggesting that teens don’t necessarily segue into being readers of the adult papers. He added, “I’m not sure they [teens] find what they want with Le Monde or Le Figaro. Maybe they’ll read the free papers distributed in the metro. It’s the same format as ours — it’s a quick read, there are pictures and it’s free. They’ve been used to free press because they’re not used to paying. They’re not used to reading in depth articles either.” (In the hope that they can pick up more readers online, earlier this month, the publishers of eight leading French dailies and weeklies formed a coalition to develop an online portal to produce editions for iPads, mobile phones and other tablet computers.)
That said, Dufour points out that that he’s been hearing the mantra “kids don’t read” for 25 years. “Then a book like Harry Potter shows up and they read seven books 700 pages long each.”
And there’s the reassuring statistic that approximately 60 million children and young adult books are sold in France each year.
At Play Bac, children regularly come in and attend editorial sessions for the newspapers, where they are invited to editors what they want to read. “It’s not adult news explained to kids but kids’ news. So it’s really the content that counts,” said Dufour.