Bertrand Pecquerie wrote in an article in Le Monde yesterday that the French newspaper industry is in crisis and, worryingly, turning to the State for help. Newspapers have been subsidized in France for the past ten years and, in those ten years, the situation has not improved, it has actually worsened.
Pecquerie believes that there are four core problems facing the industry and these are not being addressed. The four core issues are method, diagnosis, objective and means.
The idea that the State is remodeling the press is absurd. The brutal and authoritative re-composition of the audio and visual sector in France in January 2008 should be a clear enough indication of what the State can do to newspapers. The best method would have been a reorganization of newspapers from within, rather than just handing their executive powers to the state.
According to some media analysts, the French press is currently suffering from a crisis of demand. It is the fault of the readers and the buyers who, year-after-year, desert the kiosks. But, what we forget is that the decline in France is no less or no more than the rest of Europe, and it is more a consequence than a cause.
The real problem is the crisis of what's in the market for newspaper readers, of the offer. If the public no longer purchases newspapers, its because they do not have enough choice, they are not being offered enough diversity. There are 350 dailies in Germany versus 80 in France. Sweden also has 80 dailies, but France has seven times the population. Over the past five years more than ten new newspapers have been created Western Europe, but not one of them is in France. Another factor in the crisis is editorial content: some dailies have cut their content by up to 20%, while their price has increased by 30%. We wonder why readers don't appreciate the changes.
The industry should ask itself about the incredible Malthusianism taking place in the French press. Why is it that in almost every European country it is possible to find a newspaper for 50 cents, but not in France? Why is it that the content of a paid-for daily in France has the same content as a free daily in London?
Without doubt, the under-capitalization of French newspapers has made them unable to invest and adapt to new forms or models on the internet or mobile platforms. The UK's Guardian website draws 23 million unique visitors, the equivalent traffic to ten French news sites.
There is talk of relaxing the current legislative constraints that restrict media companies from owning more than one news source. If this occurs, it would mean that newspapers could also own television and radio stations. However, this would not change anything, because in France, this would just mean increased influence in the media world, not an increase in revenue. For example, for groups such as Bouygues, Lagardère and Dassault, media outlets are their second means of income; whereas with Axel Springer, Bertelsman, Trinity Mirror, Prisa, RCS, Bonnier, Stampen, Ringier and Edipresse, are more or less 100% media companies. This means that they have more of an incentive to develop their models. A dose of European press capitalism would do the French model some good.
If there was to be one objective for the French press, it would be to open France to European companies who know how to create dailies that make an impression, that know how to develop in a pluralistic environment and who know how to make a profit. We are wrong about our objective, European champions - yes, French champions - no.
The press is approaching this problem by asking the State for financial assistance - over 280 million euros. For the past ten years, the subsidies have not stopped increasing, while the crisis in the French press continues. This clearly illustrates that we are approaching this problem with the wrong logic, and the state keeps throwing money into a bottomless pit.
The paradox is that the state is maintaining certain dailies. All countries in Europe help their newspapers in different ways, but the fact that French newspapers depend on the State is unhealthy. A state-subsidized press will become, whether we want it to or not, a tool of the state, and will not push the limits when reporting on the state so as not to step on the toes of those who control it.
The real issues are elsewhere. Instead of focusing on the newspapers that exist, why doesn't the State focus on the creation of more multimedia outlets on the Internet and other new media platforms? Essentially, should the state continue to pay for the publication of Libération or choose to support the development of Rue89.com, which has the same type of journalism as the former (the creators of the site used to work for Libération)?
Bertrand Pecquerie is the Director of the World Editors Forum at the World Association of Newspapers. His article was published in Le Monde on October 7, 2008 and reflects his personal opinion and not that of WEF or WAN.