In the interview below, Michel Helou, Executive Director of L’Orient-Le Jour, talks about the origins and results of the company’s digital transformation strategy, which is bringing in readers and revenue, and how the French-language media company sees a future in English and – in the longer term – Arabic as well.
What are the key challenges facing independent media in Lebanon today?
It is very sad and very worrying with some small lights of hope. Lebanon used to be the capital of freedom of speech and quality newspapers and media since the 19th century, and this has collapsed over the last decade, and this collapse has accelerated over the last two years.
There is absolutely no way to sustain a print business model in Lebanon. You are completely choked by the cost of importing paper, and selling in Lebanon doesn’t make any sense anymore. It’s an extremely difficult situation. And you have foreign influenced media that is gaining ground in the country. It used to be the opposite; fifty years ago, the Arab region used to read Lebanese newspapers.
If we look at the media landscape in Lebanon, and probably the Middle East as well, there are two main components: one is the traditional media, traditional newspapers, that used to be independent, but have mostly collapsed, and have been very weakened by the economic situation and have not been able to find a business model. This includes a lot of newspapers that used to be important institutions for our democratic process.
On the other hand, you’ve got a category which is politically controlled but financially much stronger, much more powerful. And it is unfortunate, because some of those are producing some good journalism, but mostly have a very strong political direction or guidance. Among those, you’ve got the big giants that are mainly financed by the Gulf, and they have a very clear political guidelines that they follow.
What we are trying to be is a third way between those, to be both financial sustainable and politically independent. So we don’t belong to any political party, we don’t get any funding from abroad, and we don’t have ties or links to any political party in Lebanon. And I think this is absolutely key and is the base of our editorial proposition.
You were part of the first group you mentioned. How have you navigated the financial challenges for independent journalism you mentioned?
First, our goal was to find a proper business model in our traditional niche market, which is French, and be able to transition from print to online in the French language, given we already have a strong position. But that was jeopardized by the huge change in business models and the digital revolution. And also, the readership shifted strongly abroad, so that we are now both a Lebanese newspaper and a diaspora newspaper on Lebanon and the Middle East. Our audience has changed massively.
We put up the paywall in 2014, and that showed us there was a willingness of readers to pay to get content online. At that time, a lot of people were still talking about news for free, which was a total illusion. Now everyone is switching to paid journalism.
Making that shift – and that was our main focus from 2014 to last year – relied on two major pillars: first improving the quality of our journalism, and second to monetize this journalism online, in order to reach sustainability.
You are now looking to expand, notably into the English language marketplace. What was the thinking to set out to serve an entirely new market for you?
We waited until we were able to prove there is a sustainable business model for quality news online before jumping into English. Why English? Because there is a lot of demand, and the supply has been weakened. The Daily Star, which used to be a reference for decades, and was the main English language newspaper in Lebanon, was independent, has been less active and stopped printing last year.
So we set up a small beta version for two years, where we were just translating some pieces and testing the waters. Late 2019, we were experiencing a very strong subscription growth in French and there were many excellent journalists available on the market. So we had both conditions that were needed: a proper business model that worked and could be replicated, and a good potential team, absolutely key for success.
So strong demand, limited supply, proper resources and a proper business model, and that would fit with our general purpose and ambition, which is to become this third way, to be the reference media outlet on Lebanon and the Middle East and in several languages. In French, in English, and, Inshallah, one day in Arabic if we are able to establish our English operations and expand into Arabic.
It took us a year to find the right people, the right managing editor, the right editors, the right translators, setting up the online platform, setting up the marketing, the campaign, the branding, etc. And we launched in October 2020.
So how does the business model work? Where does your revenue come from?
Our model is pretty simple and clear. Basically we used to rely on two pillars, like most newspapers, content and advertising. We saw both decreasing. Newsstand sales and subscriptions have been declining for the last 20 years. Advertising was very strong until 2012-2013 and then it declined sharply.
We realised in 2014 that we couldn’t be sustainable in that way, so we followed what the Financial Times or the New York Times or what Le Monde were doing in the western world, which was monetizing their online content, not only by ads, because ads weren’t enough to support the newsroom, but by subscriptions and reader revenue.
What we did is, we put up a paywall in 2014, and that was a really positive move and showed us there was a willingness from readers to pay to get content online. At that time, a lot of people were still talking about news for free, which was a total illusion. It didn’t work at all, and now everyone is switching to subscription websites.
It wasn’t until 2016-2017 that we really developed our digital marketing and our subscription strategy. And from then on, we set up a proper marketing team, we really worked on the monetization part (offers, subscriber journeys and user interface/user experience, payment gateways, retention, etc.). We also put a lot of focus on the newsroom, so they would understand what the subscription model meant for their way of working.
What are the results so far?
We’ve experienced much stronger growth. A very important milestone was 2020, when subscriptions accounted for more than 50 percent of our revenue. Coming from close to zero in 2014, it is a radical change.
Why is it such an important change? One in terms of purpose, that business model blends better with our values and purpose than ads or other sources of funding, grants or whatever. That allows us to depend only on our readers and not on advertisers, or corporations, not on foreign funders or politicians, so it helps us reach independence. It also makes us focus on the quality of our journalism. Because a reader that subscribes is a reader that is really interested in quality journalism, versus ads that make you focus only on massive audience and not quality journalism.
The second thing I want to emphasise is our shift, in reference to the Lebanese economy. It has been a shift from an import-based business model, that relies on paper and printing and sells on the local market, towards a locally produced, export-based business model. On top of our newsroom, our web developers as well as our marketing team are local. Besides, we’ve kick-started our exports thanks to online subscriptions. This is vital given the devaluation of the local currency.
That is the shift that the whole Lebanese economy will have to go through in order to survive. We were lucky, we were prepared to make that shift.
You said 50 percent of your revenue comes from subscriptions. What about the other half?
It’s still a mix of the old sources of revenue, which have been reduced a lot. We still have a small share of online ads and print ads but both have become minor. Combined with partnerships (yearly deals with corporations or organisations), they account for about 22 percent. In print, sales and subscriptions still represented 29% of our revenue. However, the devaluation we’ve suffered in 2021 has overhauled our model and pressured print sales and ads even more.
Subscriptions live or die depending on knowing your audience. Who are your readers, and where are they?
Our French-speaking audience can be split into approximately four groups: Lebanese in Lebanon, Lebanese in the diaspora (mainly France, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland and the United States – there are a lot of French speaking Lebanese in the United States – Dubai, and then West Africa). The third group is foreigners in Lebanon: the embassies, NGOs, experts, analysts who reside in Lebanon. And then you have foreigners abroad, here we are talking mainly think tanks, academics, political science students, etc.
It is quite similar in terms of replication in English, at a much earlier stage, knowing that now we are focusing only on Lebanon coverage (and not Middle East) so we don’t have the same breadth of audience, especially when we look at foreign think tanks. We know that typically, most French speaking think tanks and students read us on the Middle East, but this is not the case in English yet – though we aim to get there.
Lebanon is a small country. Has the audience outside of Lebanon surpassed that inside the country?
Absolutely. That’s a key figure. In terms of general audience, For the French website, 80 percent of our audience is outside of Lebanon, 20 percent is within Lebanon, so that’s a huge shift versus the 1990s, when close to 100 percent of our (print) audience was inside of Lebanon. That’s for the free audience. For the paid audience, so we’re talking about subscribers and not just visitors, it is 50-50. So the Lebanese audience is slightly more loyal, more interested, and more willing to pay than the foreign audience. But still, 50 percent of our subscribers coming from abroad is a good figure.
Did you also look outside of Lebanon for ideas when you were formulating your business model?
We did a lot of intelligence, looking at what others were doing and benchmarking. So I spent quite a lot of time going to Europe, with my colleagues, mainly to France. We met the subscription people, we met the newsroom, we met the editors, we attended several conferences. This is how we learned.
But again, your market is different from those markets. A lot of media look, for example, to the New York Times, which is very successful with subscriptions, but often that doesn’t translate to smaller outlets. What were the takeaways for you?
I totally agree with you about the New York Times, it is totally unique. But at the same time, everything it does is interesting to us. Besides, they are being very public about their strategy and disclose a lot of info. Their subscriptions shift was very early and very successful and that was the shift we focused on. This is the shift we try to achieve, on our very small scale, in terms of focus, in terms of revenue breakdown. This helps us answer questions like what do you focus on regarding subscriptions? What sort of analytics will you look at? What is their digital marketing strategy, their newsletter strategy? How do they organise the newsroom? − all of that is stuff that we can build on, in our own scale, to improve.
Who do you see as your competitors?
In French, if you look at the Middle East, Le Monde would be a competitor. Libération sometimes, Le Figaro sometimes, Mediapart is more specific on investigations but they cover Lebanon and the region. Le Monde is very strong in the Middle East, they have a very good team, they’re the ones we want to compete with. So if you take the Sciences Po student, or the think tank guy, he’ll be thinking, should I subscribe to Le Monde, should I subscribe to L’Orient-Le Jour if I want to follow the Middle East?
On Lebanon specifically we don’t have direct French-language competition. But not having competition doesn’t guarantee your success, you can have no competition and still fail if you are not able to convince your reader to subscribe. So, in the end, our competition could be any other source of news, or any other platform, that can capture people’s brain time, people’s attention. So content on Facebook, or Instagram or Snapchat is also competition to us. Because the Lebanese are multilingual, other news websites in Arabic or English are also competition. We need to prove that spending five minutes a day on L’Orient-Le Jour is time well spent because of the quality of the content. And that competition is the biggest for all media outlets out there.
How do you differentiate yourself? How do you convince the reader to come to you and spend their money with you?
On content, it is depth we’re going to give, not only on the Middle East but also on Lebanon, and that clearly nobody has the depth in French. Since 2019, Lebanese politics has been very intense, so a lot of people have been focused on Lebanon. The second thing is our standards: we try to abide by the highest standards for journalism – with a strong focus on facts. Third is our approach and our presence here in Beirut. It is different to write from Beirut than from a newsroom based in Paris, New York, Washington DC or Dubai. This is also true about our regional coverage: on the Syrian war for instance, one of our differentiators was trying to give a voice to those who live here. We did a lot of direct contact, and let the Syrians talk about the war, and I think this is something very important that western media probably didn’t do as much as we do.
Then we have tried to develop a whole array of products. We are still limited when compared to the big newsrooms, but we try to focus on providing a good reader experience, very clear newsletters, very decent apps. We revamped our website completely. In a nutshell, it is about focusing on our niche, on what we are good at − i.e. the Middle East and Lebanon − and trying to convince people to subscribe.
These issues are even more pronounced in the English language market. Can you talk about your thinking? Why do you see opportunities here?
The strategy is clearly choosing a niche, winning the niche and moving upwards if it works. So the first niche is Lebanese news, in English, focusing on politics, society and the economy. Why do we think it can work? Basically because we believe the supply of news does not match the demand. There is a huge need. So we want to be the top ones on that, and target those four groups of people – Lebanese in Lebanon, Lebanese abroad, foreigners in Lebanon, foreigners abroad. Our differentiating factor will be, number one, the depth of our analysis, And two, our credibility. We are Lebanese, and I think people want to read Lebanese outlets, and not just foreign ones, especially if politically-oriented ones. We don’t have any political guidance, we’ve got real newsroom independence that the others probably don’t have. Those will be our two differentiating factors.
In terms of competition, you have several new outlets that are doing a great job. None of them are doing exactly what we do, but here are some: Now Lebanon, Megaphone (specialised on social media/visual production), Daraj, Raseef22, etc.
If we look at the foreign newspapers, the strongest in English is The National, which has a substantial Lebanon team. Overall, their coverage is too scattered to really become competition to us. But if we start covering the Middle East, and that is a long-term strategy for us in English, it will be another game for us.
Has the newsroom expanded during this transformation since 2015 or has it contracted like a lot of companies?
We have strengthened it clearly, but in terms of numbers, we are approximately the same in French. That’s without the L’Orient Today English staff; if we include them we’ve seriously expanded.
What are the big lessons learned from this journey? What advice would you have for others looking to make the digital transition in similar size markets?
I think the first thing to do is to define precisely your value proposition and understanding your audience. Product-market fit is essential in order to successfully monetise your product.
Journalism today is largely driven by purpose. Hence the necessity to clarify your purpose in order to have a convincing value proposition. What is your purpose as a media organisation? It’s not just about making money, it’s about shared values, it’s about democracy, accountability, freedom of speech.
The second thing is, look at your media organisation as a business, not just as a newspaper, or as a political influence tool. In Lebanon it was the opposite – it was often about using a media’s influence to get funding from politicians or foreign powers, which is harmful for journalism. Regarding the business perspectives, I think in most of the cases, monetization will be based more on readers than advertising. Advertising has suffered a lot, and it will take years for the Lebanese economy to recover. In order to generate reader revenue, you need to be number one in your niche, and focus on monetisation.
Then there are other business models to be explored, each one of us will have to invent its own. That’s also the beauty of this industry.
This article is republished from the UNESCO publication After the pandemic, building back a stronger media: inspiring initiatives in ensuring media viability, written by Larry Kilman. Access it here.