Top Stories from the Business pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Wednesday, January 27, 1999

Letting Children Read All About It

3 French Daily Newspapers Are Successfully Aimed at Youngsters

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Having achieved phenomenal success with the educational game Brain Quest, a small French publisher is trying to spin money from an unlikely source: daily newspapers for children.

In September the publisher, Play Bac Presse, started two publications -- one aimed at 6- to 9-year-olds, the other at 14- to 18-year-olds -- to go with an earlier title intended for 10- to 15-year-olds.

''The idea was to use the news as a pretext to tie in what's happening in the everyday world with what is more theoretical in what children are learning in school,'' said Francois Dufour, the editor in chief and one of three childhood friends, now in their late 30s, who founded the company in 1985.

To start the newspapers, Play Bac Presse used money earned from Brain Quest, a question-and-answer game that has sold more than 25 million copies around the world.

The newspapers have quickly become successful. The first, Mon Quotidien, was begun in January 1995 for 10- to 15-year-olds. It now has 55,000 subscribers and celebrated its 1,000th edition earlier this month. When it became profitable in its third year, the publishers decided to start Le Petit Quotidien, which is for 6- to 9-year-olds and has 45,000 subscribers, and l'Actu, which is for 14- to 18-year-olds and has more than 15,000 subscribers.

Aiming newspapers at young readers is not a new idea, of course. Such publications range from The Children's Newspaper, published in Britain through the first half of the century, to The Little Masters, a Shanghai biweekly founded in 1983 -- it now has a circulation of a million and a staff of 400 children -- to a variety of titles in the United States and Japan. But as a business proposition, American newspapers have often seen their child-oriented sections simply as vehicles to develop readers at an early age, not as profitable entities in their own right.

''We are above all an educational publisher,'' Mr. Dufour said. ''We are not the Little Liberation or the Little Le Figaro.''

The key to the Play Bac Presse newspapers' success lies in their cheap and effective distribution system. A government postal subsidy for French national daily newspapers reduces the mailing cost of each issue of Le Petit Quotidien to 30 centimes, out of the cover price of 1.80 francs (32 cents). A postage stamp in France normally costs 3 francs. Delivered from Tuesday to Saturday, the papers reach their destination on the day of stated publication thanks to a postal system that practically guarantees overnight delivery.

Play Bac's advertisers pay through a club system where they contribute a lump sum of 300,000 francs for about 23 ads through the year. Mon Quotidien, for example, has 12 sponsors, such as Agfa, Axa, Coca-Cola and Danone.

Play Bac employs 60 people, 30 of them on the editorial side. The company has turned a profit every year since 1986, except when it started the newspapers. Sales in 1998 were 80 million francs, with 36 million on the newspaper side. A total turnover of 120 million francs is forecast for 1999.

Production costs are kept low through a simplified page layout that never changes: each issue carries a wire service photograph on the front page to introduce the theme of the day, along with an inside page article, a back page comic strip and a crossword puzzle, all treating the same subject. In Le Petit Quotidien, for example, an item with a photograph about the discovery of 70-million-year-old dinosaur eggs in South America gives a lesson on dinosaurs through a few words and graphics. Product reviews are done by child subscribers and their parents.

Because of the different age of the target readers of each of the three newspapers, the front pages rarely deal with the same story. The readers of Le Petit Quotidien find a larger number of stories about animals or nature, for instance, than do the older readers of Mon Quotidien, who find more stories about the environment, sports and scientific discoveries. In l'Actu, the emphasis is more on social issues such as AIDS, immigration and entertainment.

To keep the editors in touch with children's interests, schoolchildren often take part in the 8:30 A.M. editorial meetings at the newspapers' offices in the Marais district in central Paris.

The company is benefiting from growing sales in the market for supplemental reading materials, as both parents and teachers try to encourage children's reading habit outside school.

Valerie Meon, a teacher in a Paris suburb, added Le Petit Quotidien to her students' list of supplemental reading materials because, she said, ''It's written in a language at their level, and while children's fiction abounds, some children are more drawn to factual stories.''

Mr. Dufour has his eyes on the lucrative American market. While on an exchange fellowship in the United States in 1997, he visited major newspapers to study how he might crack that market. He is now trying to sell syndicated publications for children, modeled on his French papers, as supplements to major U.S. newspapers.

Steve Cohen, a managing director of Scholastic Inc., one of the biggest book and magazine publishers for children in America, said that in the United States parents spend about $1 billion annually on children's magazine subscriptions -- the top 10 children's magazines have a circulation of 15 million -- and $3 billion on children's books.

But Mr. Cohen said that to publish a daily newspaper in the United States would take a different business model from that used by Play Bac.

''From a content point of view it's terrific,'' he said of Le Petit Quotidien. ''From a design point of view it's wonderful. But in terms of sending it by the U.S. postal system, it's dead in the water.''

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