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Montreal's daily La Presse trumps paywall trend with a gorgeous and free iPad app

by Patrick Pierra

April 18 2013

La Presse + not only offers the print edition content, but also additional multimedia content, to be entirely financed by advertising.

La Presse, the largest French-language daily newspaper in the Americas, has shocked the Canadian press by committing to an all-free app model. Its new iPad app, called La Presse +, launches today on the App Store.

The release marks the second free iPad to come from the newspaper, which is owned by a subsidiary of Canadian financial conglomerate Power Corp. The newspaper's first iPad app offered content in basic layout templates, but the new app goes further when it comes to features and design.

La Presse + now offers a daily edition which is manually designed every day, with a staggering variety of templates and jaw-dropping design. And in addition to offering full print edition content, it also includes video clips and an iPad-only interactive magazine section (called 'Pause') which targets female readers.

La Presse spent no less than CA$40 million (almost the same amount in US$) and more than three years researching and designing the app.

A total of $2 million was spent on research alone. The amount was split in two projects. The first project helped refine the user experience and made sure that any user -- even one who had never handled a tablet before -- would be at ease using the app within 5 minutes.

The second project focused on ads, to assess the efficiency of the specific new formats which were designed for the app. This project combined two techniques. Researchers tracked users' retina movements, to know what they were looking at on the screen, while a camera simultaneously captured their face to rate their mood.

Development was handled internally, by a whole new team dedicated to apps. (La Presse's previous mobile apps had been developed by contractors.)

The result is a newspaper app like no other. Somewhat reminiscent of The Daily and of The Guardian app, the native iPad app combines some usual navigation paradigms, like horizontal swiping from one article to another, and vertical scrolling of text within articles.

And while the menu and share icons are similar to those from other publications, the overall design of the product stands out. Pages are manually crafted, in a way that directly evokes the print product. (The La Presse print newspaper has been a regular winner of design awards in the last few years.)

User adoption may face some challenges, however. The variety of navigation options is somewhat disconcerting and it’s not clear yet if the gorgeous layouts and bright colors will allow for a comfortable reading experience. The app is also only available in landscape mode.

Each of the daily editions will be delivered every morning at 5:30 AM in a heavy file: the file for the first edition is 102 MB. There is an icon to check the latest news online at LaPresse.ca, but the app may still find some resistance from younger readers more accustomed to an always-on, up-to-date experience.

Still, for the 800,000 readers of La Presse, many of whom either have a tablet or plan to buy one, La Presse + will be a hard-to-beat proposition, if only because of its price (the app and in-app subscriptions to the daily edition will be free).

“La Presse + app will be free tomorrow, for the year to come, forever," promised La Presse CEO Guy Crevier at a lavish launch party yesterday evening.

This plan flies in the face of most quality-newspapers strategies, which rely on paid subscriptions in their Newsstand app, with the La Presse management team apparently betting exclusively on tablet advertising revenues.

Ad formats, while non-standard, are straightforward: full screen, left half of screen, vertical quarter of a screen positioned on the left of the screen, and bottom screen horizontal leaderboard. They are loaded with the daily edition, are coded in HTML5 and JavaScript, and allow full interactivity within the ad space.

There are no expandable ads, no self-starting videos, and no web standard ad format. More than 100 ads were created to demo ad capabilities within the app. A portfolio of demo ads is available online.

The newspaper took a huge risk by opting for new, app-specific ad formats but it seems to have received a positive early reception from Montreal-based advertisers and agencies. The first edition features ads from more than a dozen of advertisers, including Honda, Subaru and the National Bank of Canada.

TabTimes will soon publish an exclusive interview with La Presse CEO Guy Crevier about this “free app forever” strategic choice, the challenges faced in developing the app and other takeaways for newspaper publishers.

Patrick Pierra is TabTimes founder and CEO. He lives in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Disclosure: he sits on the board of directors of Le Devoir newspaper, a competitor to La Presse.)
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