January 26, 2009

State aid for the press?

France is usually thought of as a nation of newspaper readers, a country in which Le Figaro is the indispensable accompaniment to the morning croissant. So it’s with incredulity that most greet the fact that newspaper circulation is only half that of the UK.

Such is the parlous condition of the French press, that President Sarkozy has now pledged €600m in aid to top up the existing €1.5bn of state largesse. Amongst other things, the new funds will offer every 18-year old a year’s free subscription to a title of their choice and provide for an expansion of kiosks. The persistence of this dirigiste tradition has tamed Sarkozy’s original promise of a “rupture” with the past. Like his Gaullist predecessors, he has found the rhetorical appeal of such a doctrine too heady to resist. In times of recession some nations are swept by an atavistic desire to return to the soil, in France they long to return to the state.

In the UK the last recession claimed three papers; Rupert Murdoch’s Today, the News on Sunday and the Sunday Correspondent. As recent start-ups at the time they can’t be easily compared to current titles but the obstacles facing the industry today are without precedent.

A combination of rising production costs, the flight to the web and falling advertising revenue has left papers running to stand still. Besides the tabloid Daily Star and the Sunday People, the Independent titles are terribly vulnerable having haemorrhaged readers after a price hike to £1. For those who can fall back on paternalistic owners such as Murdoch, non-profit trusts (the Guardian) or billionaire sugar daddies, hazards remain.

Much of the most valuable work, such as foreign reportage and investigative journalism, is also the most expensive and something parasitic bloggers cannot hope to emulate. Investigative journalism by definition requires time, resources and patience; one can’t find a scoop without first investing all of these. It also requires support from proprietors willing to cough up defence fees for libel suits, too often the last refuge of the powerful. The risk is that newspapers, straining to keep up with the internet and rolling news channels, will lack the time and the will to perform adequately in either of these areas. As is now well known, comment is free but facts are expensive.

It’s in this regard that quality newspapers should be seen as an essential component of a healthy public realm. The young readers who will determine the future of newspapers have grown up viewing the internet and freesheets not as additions to papers but as replacements. UK newspapers should explore Sarkozy’s latest intervention with more than mere curiosity.

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