France waking up to news revolution


The press as French readers know it will soon disappear, French journalist Bernard Poulet argues in his book published in February, 2009. La fin des journaux et l’avenir de l’information, or The end of newspapers and the future of information, proposes that the French, unlike their American colleagues, have not yet understood the full extent of the crisis hitting the press and journalism.
This depressing American viewpoint is gaining ground in France, however, exacerbated by the current economic crisis. In May, two of France’s biggest newspapers, Le Figaro and Liberation, announced that they will not go to press on certain bank holidays in order to save costs. Le Figaro will stop the presses three times a year; Libération five. While the two newspapers describe this measure as limited, some commentators say it could mark the beginning of a trend for daily papers.

According to newspaper Le Monde, the move “can be interpreted, in the context of the crisis of the written press, as the first step in the withdrawal of the print press”.

If that is the case, dailies will be forced to adapt. Le Monde quotes Frédéric Filloux, a news media expert, who says newspapers will have to adopt “niche strategies” in order to survive:

  1. “A smaller number of readers will always be willing to pay a high price for paper and advertisers will be interested in this target. We can reasonably think that, in a few years time, several newspapers will come out only two or three times a week.”

Franz-Olivier Giesbert, director of weekly Le Point, also suggests newspapers should target a specific readership. “The press is undergoing an industrial revolution that several economic sectors have experienced. The newspaper of tomorrow has to embody something strong. The future is for newspapers with an identity,” he says in a video interview on Le Figaro’s website.

Online journalism searching for a business model

If the media landscape of the future is to be occupied by niche products only, the question that inevitably arises is how – or whether – most people will continue to be informed. Via TV? This news medium is also suffering, Bernard Poulet points out. The Internet, with its easy access and free sources? Newspapers have developed their own websites, but there are serious questions about their economic viability., one of the most popular French news sites with 3.5mn unique visitors per month, is not making money for the company, Bernard Poulet states in his book.

Poulet points out several problems with the Internet. First, advertising money has left the news media for the Internet as a whole. Only a small part of ad spend flows to news websites. The Internet has also fragmented the news media - although many websites use mainly articles supplied imageby press agencies (an article about online journalists in Le Monde on 25 May triggered a widespread debate on news websites and blogs). But perhaps Poulet’s most gloomy argument is that people are less interested in news than before.

Pascal Riché, journalist and co-founder of news website Rue89, has confronted to the first two problems. His website, created just over two years ago, gets its revenue from various sources, including advertising, merchandising and developing web solutions for external clients. But its founders admit that they are still looking for a stable business model.

Riché offers a different perspective than Poulet’s regarding people’s alleged loss of interest in news. In a recent article, he writes:

  1. “According to us at Rue89, there isn’t a crisis of demand (because the new generations also need information) but a crisis of offer (traditional media are having difficulties to fulfil the expectations stemming from the current revolution of uses). The readers/listeners/viewers expect a different type of information today; they want to be able to react, interact, criticize; they are finding it harder and harder to stand the collusion, the journalistic waffle.”

Distrust of the press

Pascal Riché‘s perspective is not all that different to Bernard Poulet’s, in fact. Poulet points out that some pure players, the strictly web-based news providers (like Rue89), have a better understanding of the Internet’s potential than print newspapers.

The author of La fin des journaux et l’avenir de l’information also cites the French lack of trust in the traditional press as one of the factors explaining its demise. According to him, the disenchantment of the French with their press is, paradoxically, the result of its change from a partisan to a more objective stance. Partisanship has been replaced by a new moralistic tone that has further disgruntled the readership, he says.

If all goes as predicted by Poulet, Filloux and Giesbert, in perhaps a decade the press landscape in France will be dominated by a small number of newspapers with a clear stance – some with issues once every few days and a high level of integration with their websites – and perhaps a few established pure players.