'It’s the reader who sets the pace, not the technology'

Christian Van Thillo, Executive Chairman DPG Media, about 2023 and 2024

Digital publishing is presenting challenges across the entire media industry, writes Christian Van Thillo, but DPG Media has everything it needs to meet them. Creating value for our customers will be key.

At the beginning of each year, the Reuters Institute, which is affiliated to the University of Oxford, publishes its Digital Media Report, a study on news media around the world. The results are based on a survey of publishers, CEOs and editors-in-chief, in which they are asked about key industry trends and their expectations for the year ahead. Although the latest edition of the report paints a mixed picture, as many as 47% of respondents are pessimistic about 2024. This has to do with economic uncertainty, rising costs, falling ad revenues and the potential negative impact of artificial intelligence, as well as the widespread observation that digital subscriber growth is slowing down.

That last part is crucial, as 80% of publishers believe that digital subscriptions will be the main source of revenue moving forward.

Newspapers that opted for a digital strategy based on a free model have made a grave mistake: ads do not generate enough revenue to fund good journalism. Everyone now realises that the only viable model is a mixed one, with subscriptions as the main source of income.

Still, the challenge remains enormous. A publisher’s chances of success depend heavily on the journalistic reputation of its titles, the market in which they are published and its financial resources – all good news for DPG Media. We have wonderful titles, published in countries with a strong subscription tradition.

Moreover, our scale allows us to make substantial investments in digital journalism without neglecting our print newspapers.

'There is still so much to gain on the digital front'

Christian Van Thillo (62), Executive Chairman DPG Media

We now know that digital transformation is a much slower process than many thought. It’s the reader who sets the pace, not the technology.

Our job is to serve that reader by providing the best possible journalism. There’s still so much to gain on the digital front. We call it digital value creation, which we facilitate by investing in the user experience of our apps, websites, videos, podcasts, newsletters and specials, and in many other innovations that make our digital offerings more compelling for our readers. But journalism itself must also undergo a major digital transformation, which is a key priority for our editorial teams.

I’ve been part of several brainstorming sessions where our media creators presented their ideas and projects, and I was impressed by their creativity and craftsmanship. I believe that is where our company’s greatest strength lies. Whether we’re journalists, marketers or IT professionals, we all share the passion to create the best possible content as part of a strong and innovative media company.

And that’s exactly what we do, in five different sectors: news media, radio, television, magazines and online services. Incidentally, our diverse portfolio of media brands also helps to stabilise our results. Year after year, we see that the less favourable results of some of our brands are offset by the strong performance of others.

Last year, the profitability of our news media was under some pressure, but radio and online services turned in excellent results. We’ve been in the radio business for just over 20 years, during which time we’ve built a strong radio presence in Belgium and the Netherlands with popular stations such as Qmusic, JOE, Contact and

Bel RTL, which together account for just under 15% of total profits.

And even though we’ve only been active in online services for a decade, our great brands in this sector – such as Independer, AutoTrack and Mijnenergie – also make a significant contribution (13%) to the Group’s results.

And now we’re about to embark on a new adventure with the proposed acquisition of RTL Nederland, which still needs to be approved by the Dutch competition authority. RTL Nederland is a fantastic television company – not only is it the market leader in linear television, but it also owns Videoland, a streaming platform with an impressive 1.4 million subscribers. The CEO of a major American television company recently said to me, “This is really unique in Europe. No other local TV company even comes close.”

Television is going through a huge transformation that began a decade ago, when Netflix arrived in our region. The future will be a mix of live viewing and video on demand, in a market where local media companies will once again have to compete with global players. But we are competing for our home turf, and we aim to win. I am extremely confident that the proposed merger will give us the edge we need to do so.

Finally, I would like to thank all our employees for their commitment and enthusiasm. Together, we’ve made DPG Media a wonderful media company. But we’ve also become a very large media company, which can have its downsides. We could lose our agility, or worse yet, our hunger. But if we continue to operate with the professionalism of a market leader and the spirit of a challenger, there’s nothing we can’t overcome.

Christian Van Thillo's view on 2023 and vision for the future

Executive Chairman Christian Van Thillo talks to Freek Braeckman about 2023, his vision for the future and key internal and external developments.

Christian Van Thillo & Freek Braeckman