(Ecofin Agency) - Africa has recently become a melting pot where many international companies meet. The continent is undoubtedly going through a shift on its economic, cultural, and social levels. To tap into this opportunity, French group Le Monde has prepared and kicked off since 2015 a plan to enter the market and become a hub pan-African media group. This plan has reached another milestone with the recent signing of a deal with mobile operator Orange in Cote d’Ivoire. In a visit to the African country for this signing, Louis Dreyfus, who heads the French media group, agreed to tell us about his strategy in Africa.
Ecofin Agency: Le Monde unveiled six years ago its strategy to further expand in the Francophone world just like The Guardian did in the U.S. and Australia. Can you tell us how this plan is going?
Louis Deyfrus: We built our plan on two points. The first was to improve how African news is covered. This means Le Monde offers more detailed coverage of African news and goes beyond political and ecological crises. And we have already exceeded that goal because we have put in many more editorial resources. We have about 35 journalists covering African news. That is a lot more than we had 11 years ago when I took over. We think we must provide our historical readers with more details about the shifting process of the African society, the African economy, the successes of the African culture. Unfortunately, this is something we were not used to doing.
The second point of our strategy was to define how we can reach a larger community. The digital world is the solution. With digital subscriptions, we can build a strong growth base for our media group in the coming months and years. That’s our next ambition.
EA: Le Monde Afrique was only launched in 2015 but has already seen four chief editors. Is that also part of the strategy?
Louis Dreyfus: We have a very dynamic hierarchical management at Le Monde Afrique. No one stays in a position for very long. But we don’t just change chief editors, they are promoted. Maryline Baumard, the latest chief editor, is now deputy managing editor, which shows the newspaper's interest in Africa. Le Monde Afrique is now considered a success.
EA: Public media such as RFI, France 24, and even AFP, have significant resources that allow them to provide extensive coverage of African news for the Francophone world. The same goes for private media such as Le Point Afrique, La Tribune Afrique, La Croix Afrique, etc. Why is Le Monde so interested in the same strategy?
Louis Dreyfus: First of all, let me make this clear. There are media groups that just because their use the word "Africa" with their brands, claim they have an Africa strategy. Le Monde Afrique has 35 permanent journalists. I don't know how many permanent journalists work for Point Afrique or Tribune Afrique, but I think we are talking about two very different things. Another aspect that is related to what is very going on in Africa is that more and more, in Europe, we are convinced there is a strong cultural and economic dynamic on the continent, which affects us directly. And we want to tell that story.
EA: A few years ago, you also expressed your interest in the Ivorian public daily newspaper Fraternité Matin. Are you still considering that option?
Louis Dreyfus: Whenever we consider holding events in Africa, we make sure we never compete with a local media group but rather complement them. However, we keep what’s ours and make sure no other media group has access to our exclusive content because the exclusivity is reserved for our readers.
The announcement with FratMat was made during an important forum that we had organized in Côte d’Ivoire. We wanted a local media group involved so we contacted them. It was neither a capitalist nor an editorial partnership. They just covered the event, as did our journalists. This is the type of association that we make, but we never make a capitalist association, and above all, we make sure that the editorial offices are very separated to defend the identity of each of them.
“We don't have a business plan for the next five years. However, we can rebound very quickly.”
EA: Will this type of partnership be strengthened in the future? With FratMat for example?
Louis Dreyfus: Whether it's with FratMat or another media group, whenever we have a big event, we explore ways to involve a local partner that fits the event. We do not have a place guaranteed for a group exclusively. Anyone can be a partner.
EA: What is your point of view on the evolution of African journalism? And the African media?
Louis Dreyfus: I would not allow myself to have a general opinion because I am not an expert. But the media landscape in Africa is very fragmented. Côte d’Ivoire, for example, has plenty of media players. The print segment appears to be rather partisan, which is not bad per se, and diffusions are very limited. Also, none of these actors, to my knowledge, are fully committed to digital transformation, knowing that the youngsters are on social media. At Le Monde, we believe that a major player who has the necessary resources and investment capacities and is present in the print segment can also have a digital strategy and transform part of its capital with the younger generations. We invested very early on in Snapchat, Tiktok, or Youtube, and today more than 50% of our new digital subscribers are under 30.
That's where I see the difference, and that probably comes from the fact that there is no major player, at least not to my knowledge, that has this capacity. It is possible that in the long run, major media players emerge with this strategy. We have seen it with the Covid-19 crisis in Europe where demand for information has exploded thus allowing media groups such as "Le Monde" to develop their readership and subscriber base.
EA: What are according to you the barriers to the emergence of large media of African origin, based in Africa and with African editorial offices?
Louis Dreyfus: Maybe it's because in reality, when I talk about an African vision, I'm wrong, and the vision must be local. But the current local market is too small for a large player. This could also be explained by the fact that in many African countries, there has not been a tradition of independent media but now people are looking for more rigorous and non-partisan information.
EA: If Le Monde plans a veritable presence in Africa, would it consider setting up an African newsroom in Abidjan, Dakar, or another capital?
Louis Dreyfus: It's too early to tell. It will depend a lot on how our digital subscriptions evolve in Africa. We have just signed a partnership with Orange Côte d'Ivoire to enable our Ivorian readers to subscribe to our media via Orange Money. What we did in France was that as our subscriber portfolio grew, we reinvested a large part of the proceeds in editorial resources. Ten years ago there were 300 journalists at Le Monde, now there are 500. There are not many dailies in the world that have seen their editorial staff double in nearly 10 years. We were able to do so because we had additional revenue.
If our African digital subscriptions increase significantly, we will likely want to feed this growth with more content and therefore more journalists. But today, it's too early to say.
EA: Do you have a timetable of goals to reach perhaps in the long term?
Louis Dreyfus: We don’t. The advantage we have is that even though we are a global brand, we are still a small company. We have 1,600 employees, so we try to be opportunistic and we don't have a business plan for the next five years. However, we can rebound very quickly.
EA: Last year, Covid-19 was a rock in the shoe of many media companies worldwide. Do you think that the traditional media business model has become obsolete and that media wishing to invest in Africa must reinvent themselves to adapt?
Louis Dreyfus: I believe that a traditional media group must embrace both old and new means of communication. What I strongly believe is that a newspaper or a magazine that is not present on new platforms such as TikTok, YouTube, or Snapchat, in Europe, will have a hard time making the under 15 or 20-year-olds readers in 10 years. So, it is necessary to be on these platforms which allow media to be distributed on a very large scale.
EA: Knowing that digitalization is growing incredibly worldwide, how do you see the future of the print media, still abundant in Africa?
Louis Dreyfus: At Le Monde, we are still active on the print media and have projects for 2022 on this segment. When we launched "M", Le Monde's weekend magazine, not long ago, our newsstand sales quickly increased. So there is still an appetite for new print media products. But it's more for the over-40s, who make up a large part of the population in Europe. But, I don't think we can attract the under-20s, either today or tomorrow, with the print media. A top priority plan that I am working on with Jérôme Fénoglio, Le Monde’s director, is to explore investment ways in the under-20 generation. We want to build the group's future for the next 10 or 15 years.
EA: More than half of Africa’s population is young, unlike Europe. Do you think the print media have a chance to disappear in Africa soon?
Louis Dreyfus: Within our media group, we make less and less of a difference between print and digital media. We believe that the media groups that will keep pace with the change are media that are backed by real editorial resources.
“I think in the coming years, the rapid development of AI-assisted translation will allow major media to translate their content.”
Social media indeed allow, very easily, to have a large diffusion, but one thing is for sure if you want to last and if you want to find an economic model, the information you produce must have value. And for it to have value, you need to have real journalists and you need to have a lot of them. So I don't know if the print media will be the future of the media in Africa, but to think that media can develop sustainably without real newsrooms seems to me to be an illusion.
EA: Related rights have been a hot topic in the European news and Australia during the Covid-19 period. Why does Africa seem not yet interested in the debate according to you?
Louis Dreyfus: Only the African media can take up this fight. Giants like Google and Facebook will not make the first step to pay neighboring rights. The fight was first taken up by the media, then relayed by the States, which led to European legislation, and later on French legislation. Later on, there have been negotiations, either bilateral (that was the case of Le Monde), or led by the professional unions. If media groups in Africa do not take action and if African states do not back them, the platforms will have no interest in making the first step to pay the related rights. I think that the progress that has been achieved in France in regards to this issue is likely to facilitate things in Africa.
EA: Do you think that the African media, which are for the most part minor players compared to Le Monde or Reuters, can take up this fight?
Louis Dreyfus: I think Africa has a particularly favorable situation since these platforms (Google and Facebook) are subject to real opposition, on the nature of their power and size. And if they want to leverage this capacity to support media, even media in difficulty, or smaller media, or media outside Europe, perhaps they can do it.
EA: African culture is a very diverse culture with many French, English, Portuguese and Arabic speakers with various local languages. According to you, how can the traditional media withstand the competition of social media which are perfectly adapted to this diversity?
Louis Dreyfus: I think in the coming years, the rapid development of AI-assisted translation will allow major media to translate their content. We all come to the approach adopted by social media, which allows for a simultaneous translation with artificial intelligence. And at that point, the power of the content we can produce will make the difference.
EA: Rwanda has switched to English and several Francophone countries have announced their intention to place English at the same level as French in their educational programs. Does that mean a setback for the Francophonie? Is there any way out?
Louis Dreyfus: Yes, it's a failure. But I think this could not be dodged. We believe, at Le Monde, that developing an independent media like ours on the African continent is also about defending the interests of the Francophone world. And we will be glad to rely on the French authorities, or the European Union, to carry out this type of development. The Francophonie can achieve this challenge through information.
You mentioning at the beginning of this interview all the initiatives by French media groups in Africa is proof that there is still space for us and that many media groups still believe in an African expansion strategy.
EA: Can large pan-African media develop in Africa without support from public decision-makers?
Louis Dreyfus: I think it can be done. It can be done with, but it can also be done without. And if we consider that a media is considered rigorous in regards to its independence from partisan causes, then independence from public authorities is sometimes needed. However, some public fundings can be granted without consideration, because States may consider that, for the transformation of society, quality media are needed.
Interview by Moutiou Adjibi Nourou