It has been a gloomy year for magazines in France. Besides diminishing circulation, Presstalis, one of the two companies responsible for print distribution in the country, faced a debt moratorium and internal strikes, which disrupted readers’ access to print publications and magazines’ revenue.
Even in the midst of these challenges, French bi-monthly magazine Society published a two-part investigation that journalists had been working on for five years. The story explored the mystery behind how Xavier Dupont de Ligonès disappeared in 2011 after killing his wife, their four children and their two dogs. Society’s journalists revealed numerous new details about de Ligonès’ toxic relationship with his wife, his debts and how his disappearance affected his two best friends.
The story of de Ligonès has long fascinated readers in France, and many books, stories and fictional movies have already been made on the topic. Society knew it would be a popular story, and they expected to sell around 70,000 copies, which is double their average.
On July 23 and August 6, Society published their 77-page investigation, surprising everyone when they surpassed their goal by selling 400,000 copies. Considering how much summer magazines are shared, Franck Annese, the proprietor of Society, estimates that four to five million people read the story.
By summer, French readers were fatigued by the onslaught of coronavirus coverage. A study by the French National Audiovisual Institute in March concluded that for eight weeks, 74% of broadcast time across French channels was dedicated to the COVID-19 crisis.
During the first week of September, the Viavoice Institute conducted a survey about audiences’ perception of coronavirus coverage. The top three adjectives to describe media coverage were “anxiety-inducing” (56%), “excessive” (45%) and “catastrophic” (28%). “Useful” came only fourth.
People were eager for a change. The true crime story, with it’s compelling characters and novel-like prose, was just what many readers were looking for. Society had originally planned to publish the story in April, the height of COVID coverage, but put it off until summer. Their timing paid off.
Promoting the story
Since Society’s first issue in 2014, the publication often referenced the true crime story. Leading up to the story’s publication, Society dropped clues on social media without scooping the investigation’s topic.
Society also relied on loyal readers to read and share their stories, but they ran into some issues this spring when Society’s print distributor, Presstalis, became unreliable. The magazine lost some of its readers so they launched a temporary free newsletter to entice new readers and reconnect with fans. This strategy helped them build and retain loyal readership for when they would drop the investigative story.
When part one of the true crime issue of the magazine came out, it went viral using a hashtag abbreviation of Xavier Dupont de Ligonès’s long name that had been popularized in 2011 when he disappeared: #XDDL.
The magazine flew off the shelves, and it began to sell out in some newsstands all over France. Society’s publishers were excited by the issue’s success, but they struggled to adapt to its huge demand.
Managing the shortage
Readers began reselling old copies of the true crime issue on eBay for as much as EUR499, which far exceeded the EUR3.90 per issue retail price.
To help readers, Society set up a Google Doc listing newsstands where readers could buy it. According to Annese, between 500 to 1,000 people were consulting the link daily to find newsstands where issues were available.
As the magazine began to sell out, #LookingForSociety became a trending topic on Twitter. Users joked, “Society’s magazine on Dupont de Ligonès is harder to find than the man himself. ”
Le Society sur Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès va devenir plus dur à trouver que Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès ; le défi ultime étant de trouver Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès en pleine lecture du Society sur Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès— Grégory Blachier (@GregoryBlachier) August 6, 2020
Annese says that underestimating the success of the story was useful as the shortage created a buzz, and news sellers were eager to have the magazine. Still, he thinks that they could have sold more if they had anticipated the demand.
True crime stories
After the magazine’s success, some readers argued that resources should be spent on more serious and less sensationalist topics.
True crime stories have been profitable since the beginning of mass media in France, more than a century ago, said Brusini. However, the reporting practices on crime were not always ethical, as journalists invented crimes to create compelling stories.
“We have to think in terms of journalistic standards, the fundamental respect of those and then face criticism,” he added, advising journalists to be careful and place ethics at the center of their practice when reporting on crime.
Impact of the success
Viral successes can be hard to reproduce and sustain. However, Society has seen an increase in print subscribers and digital sales since their summer issues. The app that releases Society is now the second-most downloaded news app in France, partly as a result of the story’s success.
Annese also thinks the story had an impact on readers' relationship with print news. “We put readers in contact with news sellers. That made people realize news sellers exist,” he says. “We tried to break the barrier and rekindle this direct relationship that is being lost.”
Aina de Lapparent is a French-Catalan freelance journalist based in Paris currently studying a Masters in Journalism at Sciences Po. She's a contributor to Inside the Newsroom, a newsletter and podcast on international news, writing weekly round-ups of the news in the Middle East. She's interested in media innovation, Solutions journalism, civil society, and the Middle East.