Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

EUROPE: The Newspaper World Suffers Another Blow

Julio Godoy

PARIS, May 5 2008 (IPS) - The financial crisis in the French newspaper Le Monde, that led to an unprecedented two-day strike in mid-April, is symptom of a growing crisis in the print media in France, and in several other European countries.

French newspapers have been hit hard by a steady loss of readers and advertising, and by the emergence of the Internet and of newspapers distributed free.

Sylvain Bourmeau, former chief editor of the weekly cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles, left the publication earlier this year to join Mediapart, an online news and analysis outlet that he says gives French journalists "the chance to reinvent newspapers." Many former Le Monde reporters and editors have joined Mediapart, accessible by subscription.

Bourmeau says the crisis in French print media is "not a seasonal or temporary phenomenon – it is actually the end of era. French people have simply unlearnt to read newspapers."

Le Monde failed to appear on Apr. 15 and 19 due to strikes, the first since the paper was founded in 1944. The strikes were called to protest against a sharp cost-cutting plan presented by the newspaper management.

The plan foresees sale of numerous magazines published by Le Monde, and 130 job cuts, including 90 in the newsroom.

Besides, private investors would take a substantial share in the paper. This would end staff say in management; the paper is at present run as a cooperative. The Le Monde management has proposed these measures to pay off about 150 million euros (220 million dollars) in debt.

"We have no choice but to put this plan into practice as soon as possible, before the summer," David Guiraud, deputy director of Le Monde, said in a statement Apr. 25. "We are giving our fellow employees the chance to decide for themselves if they want to leave the enterprise."

But the staff continues to reject the plan. "An overwhelming majority of the staff has asked that a new plan be presented," Christiane Chombeau, representative of the National Journalists Union at Le Monde, said at a press conference.

The present crisis is the newest in a string of financial difficulties for Le Monde. In March 2005, with the company facing an annual loss of 15 million dollars, the management axed 90 jobs, and sold 15 percent of the capital to Groupe Lagardere, a conglomerate whose ownership includes heavy military industry. Another 15 percent went to the Spanish media group PRISA.

In late 2007, Le Monde sold numerous regional newspapers, reducing the company&#39s total personnel strength from 3,200 to 1,600. But the Société de Redacteurs du Monde, the cooperative representing the newsroom in the newspaper management, continued to control 29.5 percent of the capital, thus keeping a vetoing minority. If Lagardere and PRISA increase their share of the newspaper&#39s capital, the staff&#39s vetoing rights would disappear.

Le Monde is not the only newspaper facing a crisis. In the fall of 2006, Libération was sold to a private investor, Edouard de Rothschild, who brought in a new editor-in-chief, and a savings plan similar to the one planned for Le Monde. A group of reporters left to set up Rue 89, an online magazine.

Many other French newspapers are facing similar difficulties. France Soir, which used to sell more than a million copies in the mid 1960s, now sells less than 30,000.

L&#39Humanité, which was the official newspaper of the French Communist party with a daily circulation of 50,000 copies, has lost 80 percent of its readership since 1975. It is now partially owned by a conglomerate of shareholders, including the military industrial group Lagardere.

Bourmeau says these changes have had a tremendous impact on the quality and independence of journalism. "You only have to see the way (the conservative newspaper) Le Figaro reports on the business affairs of its owner (the military industrialist) Serge Dassault," he told IPS.

Other European countries have also seen a steady loss of newspaper readers. In Germany, the government, in cooperation with several federations of newspapers publishers and journalists&#39 unions, launched a campaign Apr. 17 to encourage youth to read newspapers.

"Those who want to take part in the political and social debates of our times must read newspapers," deputy minister for culture Bernd Neumann said at the launch of the plan. The plan provides among other measures for regular readings from newspapers in schools and youth clubs.

Neumann&#39s ministry acknowledged in a statement that "fewer and fewer children and youth read print media."

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