Sarkozy Wants To Save Ailing French Newspapers

French President Nicolas Sarkozy says he will give $800 million in emergency aid for the country's failing newspaper industry. He wants to boost the newspaper reading habits among young people in France, but many of them think the French press has too much opinion and not enough reporting.

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Here's a familiar story: newspapers in trouble, with at least one unusual approach to fixing it. President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to give every 18-year-old in France a newspaper subscription free. It's part of an $800 million government aid package Sarkozy has announced, aimed at helping the French newspaper industry. But as Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris, the troubles of the French press started well before the current economic crisis.

Ms. ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Newspapers throughout the world are losing readers, but the French press is in really bad shape. French newspapers are among the least profitable in Europe, and they have half the readership of papers in Britain or Germany. The French government already gives nearly $2 billion in subsidies to the press. Media strategist Frederic Josue says this complicates relations between the newspapers and the government.

Mr. FREDERIC JOSUE (Media Strategist): It's a free country, and you are basically free to write whatever you want. But when you have newspaper who are making something like 10 to 20 percent of the actual revenue from direct public subsidies - I mean, it's impairing their credibility.

BEARDSLEY: Josue says any new aid should be tied to efforts to restructure the industry. One reason why French newspapers are so expensive, about $1.50 per paper, is that printing costs are exorbitant, and distribution archaic and inefficient. Printing plants have not been modernized, and the industry is dominated by rigid, Communist trade unions. There is a lack of newspaper kiosks, but it's virtually impossible to open a new one, and antiquated regulations abound. A 1947 law guarantees newsstand space and national distribution for every publication. The law was meant to ensure freedom of expression after wartime Nazi propaganda. Today, it keeps vendors from adapting to market needs.

Unidentified Woman: (French spoken)

Unidentified Man: (French spoken)

BEARDLSEY: Inquic and Patrige Depone(ph) have sold newspapers and magazines from their busy news kiosk on the Rue de Rivoli for the last 30 years. It is jammed with hundreds of publications. But Patrige Depone says it's the free papers that are killing them.

Mr. PATRIGE DEPONE (News Kiosk Owner): (Through translator) Just look around here on any evening, and you'll see loads of people distributing free newspapers. That's like if someone would give out free bread right in front of the bakery.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy has promised to multiply outlets, loosen rules, and increase home deliveries. He's offered tax breaks for online journalism, and says the government will negotiate with the printers unions to reduce costs. But that's overlooking the real problem, says newspaper publisher Francois Dufur(ph)

Mr. FRANCOIS DUFUR (Newspaper Publisher): The crisis of the national daily papers in France, it's just because the newspapers are bad.

BEARDSLEY: Dufur says French papers are out of touch with the public, and French journalists confuse reporting with editorializing.

Dufur publishes two newspapers for children and adolescents from a bustling newsroom on the east side of Paris. He has 150,000 subscribers. That's more than the national newspaper Liberation. Dufur even brings in young people to participate in editorial meetings, and his papers are a colorful mix of hard news and human interest. But he says Sarkozy's idea of giving 18-year-olds a free subscription to a major newspaper is a gimmick that won't work.

Mr. DUFUR: If a teenager would receive a paper free for a year, when he turns 19, will he really invest 200 euros a year on his pocket money to subscribe for a daily paper? Ask them.

BEARDSLEY: Sixteen-year-old Kolon Consalda(ph), one of Dufur's interns, says her parents take three major dailies, but she hardly ever reads them.

Ms. KOLON CONSALDA (Intern): (Unintelligible) sometimes they give me an article, I read it, but I can't read everything.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy says the press needs help to weather the current economic crisis just like the car industry or plane-maker Airbus. But critics say further subsidies will hinder real reform and only postpone an inevitable restructuring of the press in France.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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