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December 19, 2004 - The Death of the Newspaper?

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So I’m driving home from work and National Public Radio pops up with a story on French newspapers - and it is amusing.  Dassault bought Le Figaro last year – so your wealthy aerospace industrialist is telling his reporters to spike stories that might “hurt business.”  Yeah, well, Silvio Berlusconi owns most of the Italian media.  Rupert Murdoch is trying to control our media.  It happens.  Over there - the editor of Le Monde quit last month as that paper is deep in debt and turning into trash.  Everyone’s in trouble – circulation stagnant and costs the highest in Europe.  I think I heard that the circulation of all the French major papers combined don’t add up to the circulation of the Daily Telegraph in the UK.  Geez.  Is the age of the newspaper over?


And now this – my favorite French left newspaper, founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, accepts a bailout from the ultimate capitalist - Edouard de Rothschild.


Say what?


Libération staff vote on Rothschild bid
Jon Henley in Paris, The Guardian (UK), Thursday December 16, 2004

Staff at France's emblematic leftwing daily Libération will vote on January 6 whether to accept a bid by a member of the Rothschild banking dynasty to take a 37% stake in the paper.

French media reported yesterday that Edouard de Rothschild, 46, expected the terms of his €20m (£13.8m) offer to be finalised "before the end of the year" - and Libération journalists say privately the deal is unlikely to meet more than token opposition within the paper.

Suffering like the rest of the French press from a shrinking readership and advertising revenues, Libération - founded in the wake of the May 1968 student uprising by Jean-Paul Sartre and a group of mainly Maoist radicals - sells only 150,000 copies a day and has rarely been financially secure.

But the paper is the house organ of the free-thinking French left, exercises considerable influence in Paris intellectual and cultural circles and has a strong brand image that Mr de Rothschild has said he aims to exploit through the possible development of a Libération media group with television, radio and internet arms.

Under the terms of the deal, Mr de Rothschild, previously a partner in the family's investment bank but now head of the French horse-racing association France Galop, will see his stake vary according to profitability: if Libération continues to lose money, he could end up with 49% by 2011.

But in a clause agreed with other shareholders - which include staff organisation SCPL, French media group Pathé and British venture capital firm 3i - Mr de Rothschild's voting rights will never exceed 40%.

Ric Erickson of MetropoleParis explains, from Paris -


The situation is not new. When I came to Paris from Hamburg in 1976 I left a 5.6 million daily newspaper. At the time I think 'France Soir' may have had a circulation of over a million throughout France, but it has vaporized. My old paper's circulation has dropped in Germany too, but is still in the millions.


The German paper owned its own presses and owned its own distribution system. In France I think it is more common for papers not to own their production, and none has their own distribution channel. Distribution in France is handled by a private monopoly, possibly owned jointly by the bigger publishers. You can get the impression that it is the distribution that wags the editorial tail.  Distribution strikes used to be common.


But the biggest problem may be that the French do not buy and read newspapers quite so frequently as the Brits, Germans and other Europeans.


When I was in Germany the population was about the same as France's is now. Unloading 5.5 million copies a day - and 2.6 million on Sundays with normal street sales outlets closed - meant that the national paper was selling into city markets with established and strong competition, as well as selling in every boondoggle dorf in the land, as well as in offshore German outposts such as Palma de Mallorca and in the Canaries.


Most people I knew in Hamburg would at least look at 3 or 4 dailies every day, and get 2 or 3 Sunday editions. Plus they got the major magazines and the weeklies, such as Die Zeit. They consumed news.  Plus, plus, everybody watched the TV news - 30 minutes without commercials. In between, there was good-quality radio news.


It took about one week in France to discover that the situation here is different. A football match can push TV-news out of its time slot, and there won't be any catch-up once the match is over. 'News' is so little thought of that the free 'newspapers' are successful here - 'news' for people who are not news consumers.


Rothschild is buying into Libération because there is a business model that he thinks makes sense. The amount of investment he's bringing is the largest lot of cash Libération has ever seen.  However, as CEO of France Galop, one has to wonder about his level of astuteness. France Galop is not famous for filling the beautiful Longchamp racetrack with punters. But it could be that racing's success is hidden, in the ghetto of off-track betting - within the PMU system.


It remains to be seen what can make Libération more attractive, beyond the small but hardcore readership it is serving now. It does the news everybody else handles; what makes it stand out is how it treats the issues of the day - whole pages devoted to commentary and interpretation, and endless pages on culture. With this Liberation is complimented by Le Monde, and Figaro on the right. If it were Germany you'd read all three daily. But in France a Liberation reader doesn't care two centimes for Figaro's opinions.


My guess is that this says something about the French. They are less likely to compromise because they not aware of the other side's opinion. Each side of the left-right equation opposes the other out of pure instinct - hardly realizing that there are large doses of socialism in all capitalists - except for some of these new, 'modern' ones - like the head of the employers' association, also a recent buyer of media.


As for the Libération staff voting for the inclusion of Rothschild capital, they probably don't have much choice, if they want to stay in the newspaper business. It's not as if they can walk across town to the 13th arrondissement and join Le Monde in its new building on Monday. When Le Monde makes the move this weekend, how many editorial staff will be left behind on the old sidewalks?


It won't be 'news' in Monday's paper.


Ah, the future is the net.  Both Ric and I have sites.



Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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Paris readers add nine hours....