The agony of the French press

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The French press is in crisis, with readers fleeing the newsstands, revenue collapsing and titles changing hands amid ever cheaper sell-offs. Vincent Truffy and David Medioni argue here that media owners and editorial managers must re-think the role and tools of the profession, instead of stubbornly grasping onto an obsolete model.

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The French press is in crisis, with readers fleeing the newsstands, revenue collapsing and titles changing hands amid ever cheaper sell-offs. Vincent Truffy and David Medioni argue here for a re-think of the role and tools of the profession and regret that, instead, media owners and editorial managers continue to stubbornly grasp onto an obsolete model.

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A little more than two years ago, at the end of 2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy brought together government members and the country's media professionals in a project aimed at establishing the state and future of the ailing French print press.

Called ‘the States General of the press' (Etats généraux de la presse), it involved a series of round-table discussions, followed by detailed reports, sector by sector. Its brief was to carry out an autopsy of the problems and to suggest what reforms were necessary to nurse an ailing industry. The work was completed early 2009.

At the time, print sales were suffering and advertising was dwindling. The reports of the problems were piling up, all bearing witness to the quagmire the sector was sinking into.

Nicolas Sarkozy warned that the State "will not impose any sclerosis, any corporatism, any bad habits", in order to "free-up solutions" for the press: "It's not a question of writing an umpteenth report on the subject, even though some very good ones have been written in thepast," he said. "It's a question of agreeing on a certain number of changes to be got under way immediately."

Two years have passed since the announced solutions supposed to offer a turnaround. The press is now no longer ailing, it is moribund. Newspapers are worth less today than the debts they are accumulating. While the Amaury group hopes to receive 200 million euros from the sale of Le Parisien daily newspaper, bids are hardly reaching half of that sum. Edouard de Rothschild,who invested 31 million euros in left-wing daily Libération,is ready to let a shareholder in as his equal for only 12 million euros. The journalists of the self-estimed daily of reference, Le Monde, relinquished their sacrosanct independence for 110 million euros, which also included all the rest of the group (iTélérama, Courrier International, La Vie). While financial daily La Tribune is changing hands for a token euro.

But the highest price in all this will be paid by the readers.

 

Publishers manage to find some consolation by saying that the thirst for knowledge has not decreased:according to a study by French media research organisation EPIQ, one out of two French people read a daily every day, three out of four read one a week. So why sales have fallen 17% in five years? Convinced that informationis no longer worth paying for, they no longer regard general news as anything more than an obsolete appendage of magazine and consumer pages meant to attract recalcitrant advertisers.

The press is at death's door as a result of having lost sight of its political and social purpose. "We have tothink today of a way to finance quality universal information," explains Bruno Patino, who was in charge of the digital pole of the Etats généraux. "Universal means information that covers allsubjects, all layers of society, all geographical zones, with no blind spots. Quality means regular information that guarantees a form of monitoring, of surveillance of the functioning of society and those in power. Because this is the real reason for being of the press, as [Jürgen] Habermas explains, to circulate information that structures the public space, nourishes debate, inform collective choices".

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