The French exception: a public commitment to the press

By Larry Kilman

Institute for Media Strategies

London, United Kingdom

When it comes to finding workable business models for the press, the French go their own way, as they do in many ways.

Where news organisations in many countries shun government involvement in their businesses, the French embrace it. In 2019, print and online news media in France are expected to receive nearly €114 million (US$129 million) in direct government subsidies — and that doesn’t count postal and tax deductions, which will add another €103 million.

The French government financially supports a free press.
The French government financially supports a free press.

Without government subsidies, the French newspaper and magazine market would simply not exist in its current form, which includes a wide array of political and general news publications, including 20 national newspapers, dozens of regional and local titles, and hundreds of magazines.

A business model that includes government financial support for the independent press is strongly rejected in many democratic countries — not only by governments but by news media themselves. They argue that taking state subsidies is the first step to a loss of independence.

But the French counter this argument with their own concerns about the commercial pressure on news media and the influence of advertisers on news content. Until recently, the French government even had a special subsidy for news media that agreed to limit advertising to less than 25% of total revenue.

If government subsidies are available to all media, without favour, is that support more worrying than a system in which businesses might influence news by buying or withhold advertising?

In both cases — government support or business support — the danger is not the support itself, but the ability of news media to prevent that support from influencing its news columns. With news media shrinking and disappearing at an alarming rate — and with the press seeking viable business models that take in new forms of experimentation — shouldn’t the French model of direct government subsidies be considered? Is it in the best interest of society to ensure a wide array of voices? Or is society already served by the explosion of unfettered content in the digital world?

With news media failing as businesses, and with widespread concern about the negative influence of unverified content spread on social media, a stronger independent press is clearly in everyone’s interest.

The millions of Euros that the French government directs to the press has three priorities: support distribution, reinforce pluralism and diversity, and promote modernisation and innovation.

About 40% of the subsidies go to support distribution of the printed press in the form of financial support for press delivery and an exemption of some taxes for newspaper distributors and press delivery companies.

In return, sales kiosks are required to distribute all newspapers and magazines, and cannot limit sales to only the popular titles.

Another 16% of subsidies are designated for support of pluralism, mostly through placing legal advertisements in general interest national, regional, and local newspapers and magazines. This support goes to any publication — currently 415 of them — that meets certain requirements, such as providing original content, selling at least half of its copies, and not being a tool of corporate communications and promotion.

The remainder of this aid — more than 50% — is designated for modernisation and innovation of the print and online press: direct government support to help independent print and online publications transform for the digital age. This includes a fund to help develop press enterprises and a fund for innovation to create incubators and start-ups, part of a larger French policy to encourage tech innovation.

At the Ministry of Culture, which administers the subsidies, an official met recently with a group of Vietnamese media executives to discuss the French system of press subsidies. The executives, whose publications are largely funded and controlled by the state, wanted to know why the French government would provide support to the press without any control over editorial content.

The official said the support recognised the essential role of a pluralistic press, independent of government control, in the fabric of French life, as well as a belief that the commercial model alone was not sufficient.

This acknowledgment, unfortunately, is disappearing in many countries where respect for a free press is declining. For government support to even be considered, there would have to be a massive change in the way the news media is perceived. In many democratic countries, the role of the press as an independent watchdog and an essential pillar of society is under attack or, at the very least, taken for granted.

News media in many communities are disappearing, and coverage of local governments is declining. But citizens continue to think they are informed, mistaking the volume of content they receive through social media as being equivalent to the verified and credible content that comes from professional news media.

Governments owe it to their citizens to help create the infrastructure allowing independent and pluralistic media to thrive. But that can only happen when Facebook-obsessed citizens, and the people they elect, realise they aren’t getting all they need and the good old local newspaper does have value after all.

This is why newspaper marketing should focus not only on brand building but on providing education about, and support for, the industry as a whole. Citizens in mature democracies may take their freedom for granted, but news media cannot afford to. Its role as a pillar of that freedom is disappearing.

Whether or not you believe government subsidies are the answer, committing to rebuilding the reputation of media is the first step to creating a viable business model. You might not agree that subsidies are a good idea, but you need the same conditions if you want to sell subscriptions and advertising. The reputation of our industry underlies everything.

About Larry Kilman

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