Posted by: structureofnews | October 17, 2010

The French Connection

Ah, those wacky French.

Last year, the French government offered people between the ages of 18 and 24 a free copy of the paper of their choice once a week for a year – both a direct subsidy to the newspaper industry as well as a way to introduce young people to the medium, and hopefully encourage them to start the habit.  Nice for newspapers, nice for young people, possibly not so great for taxpayers.  How’s it coming along?

Apparently, pretty well – although that depends on what your expectations are.  Participants say they like getting papers and seem to be building a connection with newsprint.  More than 80% gave the project very high marks, trust in the press rose significantly among subscribers and more than half say they now buy other newspapers.   The project is launching a second phase now.

Francis Morel, president of national daily Le Figaro and president of the national daily press union, said that for his paper, the scheme had been an “unimaginable success,” with the allocated quota of free papers being exhausted in four days. Young people might have a problem with the price of papers, he said, but there is not a lack of interest.

So maybe all we need to get young people to read newspapers – and by extension, save the news business – is lots of free trials?  (Subsidized by taxpayers?)

Let’s say for the sake of argument that proposition is true – that some government subsidy would provide the magic bullet that could help revive the newspaper business in its present form.  That’s not so far off from a suggestion more than a year ago that what America’s top newspapers needed was funding in the form of an endowment to keep going.  That proposal, in an NYT op-ed piece, lamented the prospect of a future without newspapers as we know them.

By endowing our most valued sources of news we would free them from the strictures of an obsolete business model and offer them a permanent place in society, like that of America’s colleges and universities. Endowments would transform newspapers into unshakable fixtures of American life, with greater stability and enhanced independence that would allow them to serve the public good more effectively.

But if we had that kind of money – whether French, American, private, taxpayer, for an endowment or to subsidize free trials – should we spend it that way? 

Consider that newspapers – and even many newspaper websites – are a specific, particular form of journalism: Not necessarily the best, the most efficient, the most useful, or the most public-spirited.  Perhaps better in aggregate than the current alternatives (although a fair number of people might dispute that).  But would we want to cement in place this kind of journalism at this point in its development?

To be sure, we don’t want – or at least, I don’t want – to see journalism or news organizations disappear.   And there’s certainly a danger of them being whittled down significantly.   But equally bad would be to ossify us in our present state – especially when there are so many possible improvements and futures ahead.

Imagine the hue and cry that horse buggy manufacturers must have made when internal combustion engines were invented.  What they really needed, I’m sure they would have argued if they could have, was an endowment to keep on making nice, handcrafted wooden buggies so that craftsmanship and elegant traveling would survive, rather than those smoking, polluting new thingamajigs.  And where would that have gotten us?

Or, for that matter, consider the example cited above, about universities.  It’s true – they are a fixture of American society.  And there are many good things about them.  But many are also nearly impervious to change and innovation, despite strong pressures to adapt to changes in the world.

Philanthropy is a good thing; and government support for an important public service can make sense.  But why pick a particular type of horse – newspapers – to back?   There are plenty of advantages that newspapers bring, but also plenty of disadvantages: Their newsrooms often organized to fit an old industrial model of production, they don’t respond well to audiences, they generally archive information badly, and so on.  Not all of them – but enough to make the case that not all should survive in their present form.

More broadly, subsidizing one type of journalism implicitly means raising the competitive bar on other forms of journalism that don’t have a subsidy – and apart from the unfair competition that can create, it may also mean stifling innovations that can’t beat a subsidized industry.  In fact, a French government-commissioned study concluded just that, saying the country’s press had been kept in a state of  “permanent artificial respiration” by subsidies.

I like newspapers as much as the next person – possibly more than the next person.  But focusing on newspapers isn’t the same as focusing on journalism, any more than focusing on buggy manufacturers isn’t the same as focusing on transportation.  We need the best form of the latter, not the former.


  1. It makes you wonder – is there some form of public subsidy that could safeguard reported journalism without stifling innovation?

    Support the newsroom, not the newspaper? Whatever the implementation, the case for this approach is two-fold:

    1. Reporting-based journalism is crucial. However journalism should or will transform itself, this is the bedrock. This is what must be preserved. And what do you call a bunch of people who spend most of their time making calls? A newsroom.
    2. Newsrooms are a gigantic store of valuable institutional knowledge. Losing today’s newsrooms, then, will profoundly set back goal #1.

    On the other hand, my professional experience has solidified my belief that most existing newsrooms will never radically restructure their product or their processes.

    Hundreds of think pieces won’t change decades of habit. And it’s not just at the top. Reporters define themselves through the story. Faced with context or structure-driven journalism proposals with, most of their responses range from bemused indifference to borderline contempt.

    Instead, legacy newsroom will be wiped out. A thousand flowers will only bloom on the rubble of the old. (This probably applies to most news experiments attempted by ink stained wretches.)

    This is why it’s called creative destruction, not adaptation: human psychology, especially when buttressed by the culture and hierarchy of large institutions, usually militates against paradigm-shifting innovation. Most smart, capable people don’t spend a lot of time questioning the core assumptions of how they’ve always done things. They prefer to muddle through rather than ask hard questions and struggle with uncertainty.

    This is why in the history of capitalism the vast majority of industries faced with disruptive change have been washed away.

    By the way, public support for culture, and for youth access to culture, has a long history in France. Most French films are supported by the state, as are certain TV stations and many theaters. Students get cheap tickets to museums, cultural events, and the like. I think it’s a laudable goal.

    • I like public subsidies for culture too, not to mention tax breaks for my preferred industries. That’s the purpose of tax codes and redistribution of wealth: To achieve publicly-deserving goals. At least in theory.

      The issue is that all this comes at a cost – and not just a monetary one. If we subsidize one type of opera, that’s the type we get, by and large. If we subsidize one theatre, the other, non-subsidized one may have trouble surviving. And so on. This may or may not be a good thing. But we should examine our choices, and the likely outcomes.

      Not that market outcomes are naturally good, or “better” than government money. All forms of funding have costs.

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