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Bassem Tellawi/AP
A newsstand in Paris.

Can French Teenagers Save the Newspaper Industry?

January 28, 2009 10:58 AM
by Isabel Cowles
French president Nicolas Sarkozy will offer citizens turning 18 a yearlong subscription to the newspaper of their choice, hoping to encourage young readers to embrace traditional print.

In France, Free Print is Better Than No Print

French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced on Friday that France will offer free newspaper subscriptions to teens, in an effort to increase readership among the young and give a boost to the ailing print industry.

Sarkozy plans to offer French citizens who have just turned 18 their pick of any of the nation’s major news publications for a year; the publishers will provide the papers, and the state will absorb delivery fees.

The measure is intended to encourage young people to embrace print. In a speech to publishers Sarkozy asserted, “The habit of reading the press is learned very young.” The French president hopes the move will give falling newspaper sales a boost and give the industry time to adapt to the “changing media landscape,” according to the Associated Press. The government is also increasing its support of delivery fees and will spend more on newspaper advertisements.
Some are skeptical of Sarkozy’s motives, citing his personal ties to the media industry. In France, he is known as the “télé-président” because of his preoccupation with how he is portrayed publicly, as well as his apparent influence over certain media sectors.

In October, Sarkozy launched a crusade to save the French press, which included loosening restrictions on ownership. At the time, he was criticized for attempting to curry favor with the media giants such as the CEO of France’s largest private TV channel, who happens to be Sarkozy's close friend.

Background: American publications also struggling

Newspapers across the United States are facing flagging sales and advertising due to the prevalence of free online content and a faltering economy. Some major metropolitan dailies are filing for bankruptcy or may fold altogether.

Many American publications have suffered so badly that they have been forced to restructure their finances and seek funding in unexpected places.

One journalism professor suggested that newspapers might begin approaching civic foundations and private donors for philanthropic aid.

Meanwhile, The New York Times Company, which owns and controls The New York Times, accepted $250 million from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú in exchange for shares; the newspaper has seen a drop in advertising sales and is currently carrying $1.1 billion in debt.

Slim, who is reported to be the world’s second-richest man, is the owner of Banco Inbursa and Telmex, a communications company. He already owns 6.9 percent of the Times Company; the deal would increase his ownership to 17 percent.

In addition, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer recently went up for sale. The only other paper in the city, the Seattle Times, may also shut down; if both publications were to close, Seattle would be the only major U.S. city without its own newspaper.

In December, Tribune Co., one of the nation’s largest newspaper publishers (controlling the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel, Hartford Courant, the Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. and Daily Press of Hampton Roads, Va.) sought bankruptcy protection, due to a $13 billion debt and a loss of advertisers. In the meantime, the group that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News missed an interest payment in an attempt to get their loan renegotiated.

Two weeks ago, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune officially filed for bankruptcy protection after talks with major unions did not yield a series of labor concessions the paper said would be necessary to sustain it economically. The Star Tribune plans to continue publishing news as it restructures its finances, however.

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