Le Monde: A textbook example for the press

With just two weeks of cash left, Frédéric Filloux described the crisis at Le Monde as “the textbook example of the evolution of French press over the last years”. He then went point-by-point the problems afflicting Le Monde in particular but the French press in general:

  • A steady erosion in readership.
  • A lack of budget discipline, made worse by loose governance.
  • The core newsroom’s reluctance to support the digital strategy
  • The collective certainty the “brand” was too beautiful to fail and that a deep-pocketed philanthropist will inevitably show up at the right time to save the company.
  • An difficulty to invest into the future, to test new ideas, to built prototypes, to coopt key talent or to invest in decisive technologies.
  • A bottomless investment in the heavy-industry part of the supply chain, in costly printing facilities.
  • An excessive reliance on public subsidies which account for about 10% of the industry’s entire revenue. Compared to Sweden, French newspapers have 3 times less readers, but each one gets 5 times more subsidies.

Most of these problems are not unique to the French press. The erosion of readership has afflicted the press in most of the western, developed world. A recent OECD report found that since 2007, newspaper circulation had declined by 30% in the US and by 25% in the UK. Before I moved to the UK in 2005, people always said that the problems afflicting the US press could never happen here because of the newspaper-reading culture. Only Japan’s newspaper market seems to have remained resilient.

In terms of a lack of budget discipline, I would only point to the industry in the US giving bonuses to execs while the companies were entering or operating under bankruptcy. As Robert Picard pointed out a year ago:

The Tribune Co. is trying to pay out $13 million in bonuses, the Journal Registers Co. is trying to pay $2 million, and Philadelphia Newspapers has already given hundreds of thousands in bonuses to its corporate officers.

The Tribune Co. is planning to put a cherry on top of the bonus sundae this year. They have already asked a bankruptcy court to approve $42.9m in bonuses and want to add an additional $16.2m in bonuses for execs when they exit bankruptcy protection. Of course, US media companies are not alone in providing bonuses to execs who preside over companies in financial distress. There are a few well known newspaper groups in the UK that have paid out bonuses to execs recently after announcing eye-watering losses.

As for lack of support in the core newsroom for digital strategies, I’d suggest that the current problem exist in a layer of powerful editors who believe they have the most to lose in any change. Rather than fully understand, much less support, the digital strategy of their organisations, they see it in their own best interest to protect the status quo and obstruct change, even as it leads to job losses and uncertainty over their own future. It is self-interest and short-sightedness to the extreme, but for them, it seems a rational decision.

Ah, the belief in the beauty of the brand, it is so endemic in media organisations that they can’t understand why their circulation is in decline. Surely in this age of a multitude of media choices, our brand, our quality will prevail, they say. Look at your books and your circulation, how’s that working for ya? Only a fool clings to a failing strategy, and the industry has more than enough fools to fill a ship.

Difficulty investing in the future, to experiment with new ideas, expensive investments in the past. Yes, yes, yes. It’s a textbook for more than France. About the only one that stands out as not generally applicable is the subsidy, and for those in the US and the UK looking for their own government bailout, it is instructive that while subsidies might help for a while, they are not a long term solution.

The industry has resisted fundamental change for so long. They believed that they could outrun the future with their brand, their quality and their market position, but they can’t. It is adapt or die, and if you wait long enough, you’ll be in the same position as Le Monde, with only two weeks of cash left and suddenly a room empty of suitors.

I honestly don’t believe most in the newspaper industry have the ability to make the changes necessary. They certainly haven’t demonstrated that in the past. In terms of the business of newspapers, they have proven that they can milk the business model for a little bit longer through cuts and consolidation. Bankruptcy will given them another go around, but it won’t fundamentally change the business environment that caused the collapse in the first place. The process will enrich a few but leave many journalists looking for something else to do.

As for me, I love journalism too much. I wasn’t going to wait around and watch anymore of this slow motion disaster. There are other ways to create a future in journalism and a future for journalism, and I’m loving have a chance to explore them.