Monday, 20 October 2008

France looks to save its newspapers (IHT)

I love France, which is why I live here.
Now, that said, if the Loi Bichet was reformed, the NMPP monopoly ended and the link broken between the CGT dominated distribution industry, the first thing the IHT would do is to fire a whole load of people in production (assuming compliance with existing French employment law or revised Sarko employment law), and cut their cost base considerably without fear of the CGT blocking the distribution of the IHT in France, and countries serviced by airplane from French print sites.
Actually, they might do more than that. They might up sticks and relocate to New Jersey, New York or a new media city in the U.A.E.
The point being, the CGT and the NMPP have had the IHT by the balls forever, and that has got to stop. Because France is the IHT's biggest market in the world, circulation wise, and a stoppage of IHT distribution for a week or more in the IHT's European circulation is untenable for advertisers. The IHT's numbers are simply too small (reader reseach numbers) to stack up with out French distribution.

Bernadette Lefevre helping a customer at her Paris kiosk. Even when newspapers reach newsstands in France, they often go unsold. (Emmanuel Fradin for the IHT)

France looks to save its newspapers
By Eric Pfanner
Sunday, October 19, 2008
PARIS: Like other Paris newsstands, the kiosk run by Bernadette Lefevre displays hundreds of newspapers and magazines, from mainstream titles like Le Monde to offbeat publications like LVP, a sort of Time Out guide for swingers.
And, like most of the 28,000 other news vendors across France, Lefevre has no choice over the selection. Under a 1947 law, French publishers are guaranteed newsstand space and national distribution - an effort to ensure freedom of expression after a wartime diet of Nazi propaganda. The rule, called the Loi Bichet, may have been well intentioned, but analysts say it also has a negative side, preventing vendors from adapting to market demand and contributing to an alarming decline in newspaper readership and revenue.
"The Loi Bichet, at the very least, must be changed," Lefevre said. "We need to be able to vary the offer from neighborhood to neighborhood. Otherwise it will get harder and harder to earn a living."
Newspapers throughout the developed world are losing readers and advertisers to the Internet, but French papers are in particularly bad shape. According to the World Association of Newspapers, circulation of paid-for dailies totals 154 copies per 1,000 people - lower than in Cuba, Lithuania or Suriname, and only about half the level in Germany or Britain. Like Lefevre, many analysts see overregulation as a major reason why French papers are thinner, scarcer and more expensive than elsewhere.
"It has become a French disease," said Emmanuel Schwartzenberg, a former media editor at Le Figaro and the author of a recently published book on the problems facing the French press.
In an effort to find ways to revitalize the industry, President Nicolas Sarkozy gathered more than 140 media experts this month to begin a three-month, government sponsored study of the written press, to look for ways to revitalize the French Fourth Estate. Like many analysts, Sarkozy put the spotlight on the difficulty of publishing in France.
"Like many of you, I think that distribution is the biggest problem for the newspaper industry," Sarkozy told participants. "At a time when marketing has become so important, it is peculiar that the press is so poorly sold."
French publishers face some unusual barriers to getting their dailies into readers' hands. For starters, they have to join a distribution network, NMPP, a near-monopoly that is mutually owned by the publishers and run by Lagardère, a publishing and military procurement conglomerate. After years of complaints from publishers about the cost of using this system, NMPP is restructuring its operations. Among other things, it plans to cut hundreds of jobs and close one of its distribution centers near Paris.
But that has caused other problems. Delivery workers at the NMPP are represented by a hard-line union, the CGT, whose hold over a choke point of the distribution system gives it considerable power. The union has struck three times this year against the cost-cutting plans, most recently in September; on those days, newsstands across France were empty. Printers at the individual newspapers are also represented by the CGT, with the power to shut down production.
Even when newspapers reach newsstands, they often go unsold. Many kiosks, even in Paris, are closed Sundays or for the entire weekend - a time when newspapers in other countries often make the bulk of their profit.
NMPP wants to create 5,000 new points of sale within the next two years. But reaching that target could be difficult. Every proposal to open a newsstand is subject to review by a special commission representing publishers and distributors, which is required to ensure that the newcomer does not hurt sales at existing nearby vendors.
Why have restrictions remained in place for so long in France? After all, in neighboring Britain, publishers like Rupert Murdoch, with the backing of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, moved aggressively to improve their business prospects in the 1980s, dismantling powerful newspaper unions.
Schwartzenberg said politicians and publishers in France had been loath to do anything until now because both sides thought they had benefited from the system.
"When something is not working, there are hidden reasons," he said. "This hidden reason is that the will of every government since 1945, from De Gaulle to Sarkozy, has been to control the press."
By keeping the newspapers financially weak and dependent on public subsidies, he said, governments think they can indirectly exercise control. Meanwhile, French publishers are willing to go along with the arrangement because a costly and cumbersome distribution system keeps foreign media companies from entering their market, he added.
Bertrand Pecquerie, director of the World Editors Forum in Paris, said France could learn a lot from publishers in Britain or Germany. Unlike those countries, France has no mass-market tabloid like The Sun or Bild Zeitung, with circulations upward of three million. The largest paid-for national daily in France, Le Figaro, has a circulation of about 320,000.
"We have exactly the same society, the same standard of living, the same culture, but in France you don't have a popular tabloid, because the French press is very elitist," Pecquerie said. "There is this attitude that a newspaper is prestige reading. We need a popular newspaper with some tabloid attitude.
"If we don't understand the workings of the newspaper industry worldwide and try to make a French exception, we will fail."
Axel Springer, publisher of Bild, has long wanted to start a similar publication in France. But last year, shortly before it was due to start printing, the company reversed course, citing difficult "logistical and technical manufacturing conditions."
For a head of state juggling issues ranging from foreign wars to financial crisis, Sarkozy has shown a surprising level of interest in the fortunes of the media business.
Last year, he tried to crack down on digital piracy of music and movies. This year, he has proposed a ban on advertising on public television; that plan has drawn criticism from opponents of the president, who say it is intended to help his friends in the media industry by driving advertising to their privately owned networks.
Many analysts say Sarkozy's goal in convening the conference on the written press is to continue a drive to build French "national champions" with wide-ranging media interests. The president has said he favors a relaxation of rules blocking owners of major television networks from also owning national newspapers. Dropping those restrictions could bring needed money and know-how into the newspaper business, he says.
But critics note that it also could help Sarkozy associates like Martin Bouygues, who controls the largest television channel in France, TF1, and Serge Dassault, who controls Le Figaro, to consolidate their media empires.
In his speech opening the conference, Sarkozy underlined his support for subsidies, which amount to nearly €300 million, or just over $400 million, in direct aid and around €1 billion when indirect benefits like tax breaks are included.
Some newspapers, like L'Humanité, published by the Communist Party, survive largely because of state subsidies, but they are not the only ones that are struggling. The two leading national dailies, Le Figaro and Le Monde, have each recently made deep cuts in their staffs. The two main business papers, Les Échos and La Tribune, were recently sold.
Analysts question the use of some of the public money. Schwartzenberg said more than €100 million went toward financing early retirement programs for the printers and delivery workers. Very little is spent on starting new publications or on the Internet, where French papers' audiences and ad revenue remain small.
In an effort to defend the aid, the delivery workers' union said the participants in the conference should write into the French Constitution a clause identifying the press as a "cultural, social and political good."
With so many vested interests at stake, analysts say, one important stakeholder is often forgotten: the reader.
"The problem in France is that journalists, publishers and workers have never thought of their papers as commercial products," said Patrick Eveno, a media historian who is taking part in the conference.
"They have only thought of their papers as a means of political influence," he said. "If this does not change, the written press will die."


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