French Press: Mon Dieu!
France’s crise de la presse has no end in sight. Like almost everywhere, France’s print newspapers are grappling with declining sales, slumping ad revenues, and the challenges posed by digital media—how to join the digital revolution, or be crushed by it.
WWD has an interview with Francis Morel, CEO of France’s Les Echo Group, that gives a glimpse into the boardroom forces driving change in the French media. Among those forces: the takeover of French newspapers by conglomerates with no experience in journalism or professional stake in a free press; a trend toward boutique products like weekend magazines to attract elite readers and advertisers who want to reach them; and a determination to exploit marquee newspaper brands to develop consulting units and other sidelines.
Morel reports that such services could soon represent almost half of the business at Les Echos, which began publishing as France’s first daily financial newspaper in 1908:
There are always activities to develop to complement the main business of media. We launched Les Echos Solutions in June with services ranging from crowdfunding to market studies and incubators for start-up companies. We are developing a publishing arm for companies with a separate staff. Services will represent one-third of the group sales in 2016. Down the road, they could be up to 45 percent of Les Echos’ business. We define ourselves as “the first media outlet for information and services,” which makes us stand out. On the services front, I think we are at the forefront.
Les Echos is just another case of how French journalists find themselves entwined with conglomerates. The paper was closely held by the Schreiber family and then the Beytout family for eight decades before being sold to Britain’s Pearson PLC, itself a publishing and education company. In 2007, Pearson sold it to LVMH, the French luxury goods conglomerate focused on brands like Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, and Moët & Chandon. Under Morel, Les Echos Group is now about to take ownership of two more French dailies, Le Parisien and its national counterpart, Aujourd’hui en France. That will put Les Echos Group in the top rank of French mainstream press, along with Le Monde and Le Figaro.
The marriage of journalists and conglomerates has not been a happy one. Shortly after the LVMH acquisition of Les Echos, editor Erik Israelewicz resigned over alleged editorial interference, and his staff went on strike to insist on editorial independence. Similar tensions arose in 2010 when a trio of French tycoons took control of Le Monde: Matthieu Pigasse, Pierre Bergé, and Xavier Niel. Since then, the paper has gone through five chief editors. (The trio, meanwhile, has acquired Le Nouvel Observateur, now simply L’Obs, a leading French newsweekly). Le Figaro, another French newspaper of record, is owned by the Dassault Group, known for its aerospace business in Mirage fighter bombers and other military aircraft.
Critics accuse the French (and their labor unions) of being resistant to change. Where independent journalism is at stake, that may not be a bad thing at all. Last year journalists at Libération went on strike against a plan by its shareholders led by chairman Édouard de Rothschild (38.6 percent share) to “save” the paper—besides the usual staff cutbacks, the plan would turn the newspaper’s headquarters into a cultural center and reinvent the paper itself as a social network. Journalists at Libération, which was founded by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre after the 1968 student and worker upheavals in France, explained their walkout with the front-page headline:
WE ARE A NEWSPAPER not a restaurant, not social media, not a TV studio, not a bar, not a startup incubator…