The French Ministry for Culture and Communication has just launched the second phase of its 'My free newspaper' project (Mon journal offert.) The programme, launched in October 2009 as part of a €600 million government effort to aid the press, has had "considerable success," the ministry announced at a press conference.
The project offers young people between the ages of 18 and 24 a free copy once a week of the daily paper of their choice, for a year. The idea is to introduce young people to the diversity of the French press. The cost is €15 million spread over three years, and is funded half by the state, half by the publishers involved.
The scheme has seen 300,000 registrations, 6% of the eligible age group, which minister for culture and communication Frédéric Mitterrand described as "an exceptional result." Only 200,000 of these have been accepted, however. The second phase of the scheme will offer an additional 220,000 subscriptions from 62 newspapers.
A study by Patrick Klein, Director General at research agency Vision Critical, concluded that young people had on the whole been happy with the first phase of the scheme: 85% of subscribers surveyed gave the project nine or ten out of ten.
Trust in the press had gone up among subscribers, from 14 to 24%, Klein said. When asked about their emotions connected with newspaper reading, during the course of the project 'motivation' went up and 'boredom' went down.
Over half the subscribers who said that they now buy other newspapers, did not do this before, and sixty-two percent said that they have started to read their chosen paper's online edition. Klein described this as a 'virtuous circle.'
"This success proves that the attraction of the press, in particular the daily press, is a tangible reality from a very young age," said Mitterand. "These new readers are great potential consumers of information," he added.
Francis Morel, president of national daily Le Figaro and president of the national daily press union, said that for his paper, the scheme had been an "unimaginable success," with the allocated quota of free papers being exhausted in four days. Young people might have a problem with the price of papers, he said, but there is not a lack of interest.
For the upcoming phase of the project, several new titles have been added to the list of choices. The registration site has been improved and the available choices have been made clearer. The advertising campaign will be reinforced by the involvement of community networks. The public has been sceptical and it is a difficult challenge to market such a product, Jean-Paul Brunier of advertising agency Leo Burnett said. It is possible to register until the 31 December.
Will it work?
Encouraging young people to read is undoubtedly valuable, but is this the most effective way to do it? It will take time to establish whether a significant proportion of young people do become subscribers after the free period in up. In order to have a bigger impact, such a scheme should surely be available to all young people, not just the first to sign up.
"The "success" level is difficult to judge as there is no identical project against which to measure the French experience," said Aralynn McMane, WAN-IFRA executive director of young reader projects. "However," she continued, "the speed with which some papers' offer was taken up -- some within the same day -- indicates a clear interest. It was also notable that the most sought-after paper was the English language International Herald Tribune."
A similar project does exist in Finland: launched in launched in September, it offers 16 to 24 year olds a free two-month subscription to a choice of 51 papers when they move away from home. This can be used for the print paper or for the website, and aims to prevent young people from giving up on reading newspapers when they leave their family home. And earlier this year a Scottish MP proposed a similar project.
Why a bailout?
A three month study into the health of the French press was released in January 2009, which led to the €600 million bailout. The French press suffers from low readership and low profitability, and is stifled by high printing costs, unions and a distribution monopoly. As well as the bailout, the press benefits from €400 million in reduced taxes.
A French government-commissioned report concluded, however, that the huge amount of financial aid it receives has kept the country's press in a state of "permanent artificial respiration." The report's author, Aldo Cardoso, proposed 15 measures to reduce state aid to newspapers and make it conditional on innovation in the sector.