The conventional wisdom is that to win in politics, you have to run to the right and hope your left-wing followers will follow with a wink. And that may be true in politics, Hillary, but it’s not true in the media, where networks and blogs, newspapers and magazines all flourish by how strongly and consistently they reinforce and validate the opinions of their readers. Witness what may be the final round for what was once the raging bull of French newspapers, Libération.
After more than three decades of oriflamming from the Left, Serge July, the paper’s co-founder (with fellow radicals Jean-Paul Sartre and Benny Levy), was forced out this week by Edouard de Rothschild, the spawn of supercapitalists and the moneyman July convinced to rescue the paper from bankruptcy in April 2005. The sacking will be formalized at a board meeting tomorrow. The paper that started in 1973 as a worker-owned mouthpiece of outraged ultra-left sentiment seems likely to end up as the failed investment of a congenital tycoon. Rothschild has sunk $25 million into Libé so far and now owns nearly 40 percent of the “business” — to abuse a word.
So what went wrong? Was Libération a victim of its own leftwing ideology? Or did it fall victim to an unforgiving economic environment?
“It was both,” Vincent Hugeux, an analyst and senior correspondent for L’Express, told me. “The French national press is in very bad shape — not only because of advertising, which is very depressed, but because of the habits of French readers.”
That’s a touch of French understatement. Newspaper advertising in France’s flatline economy is down almost 50 percent because almost no one wants to pay $1.50 to read any of the nation’s dull daily papers. Libération’s circulation had once reached 200,000, but is now dropping below 136,000. The paper is at risk of becoming to the French media what MSNBC is to cable: a newsletter in the wrong format. No doubt this is a reflection of the country’s almost complete indifference to politics, unless it involves taking back an entitlement or two. Those who do need a paper glance at the largest national daily, the aptly named 20 Minutes (circulation 650,000 or so, twice that of runner-up Le Figaro), a free handout sucking up what newspaper ad revenue is available.
As a business model, Libération was peculiar. I remember when P. J. O’Rourke’s office at Harry was occupied by angry Maoists. This was, um, a while ago, when he and I were working on competing hippie papers in Baltimore. I thought he should just look at it as an exercise in customer service, but he found it impossible to make a paper with angry squatters on his desk. Libération actually hired ticked-off Maoists, people who hated business and hated money, and gave them desks to squat on.
Chief among them: Serge July. In order to keep his surly ship afloat, July made more and more accommodation with the enemy — that would be what we call “subscribers” and “advertisers,” people with money, something his paper’s original demographic voluntarily lacked. Every move he took to keep the paper going took him farther and farther from his core readership, most of whom were finding gainless employment in the anti-globalization industry. Finally, July himself followed the trajectory of his co-founders, turned on the left for rejecting the EU constitution, and apparently found intellectual comfort somewhere closer to the center-left.
“He changed. When you look at July himself,” said Hugeux, “[his changing politics] reflected a trend in French society. Little by little, the things that allowed Libé to survive also allowed it to die.” (Le Monde’s arch obituary is here. A warmer Wall Street Journal send-off is here, for fat capitalist lackey running-dog subscribers. Media columnist Daniel Schneidermann, who was given refuge by July when he was fired by Le Monde after offending Jean-Marie Colombani, posted his farewell on his Big Bang Blog, here.)
Soon, the paper was trying to position itself as a rival to Le Figaro, on the corporate right, and Le Monde, on the elitist left, and grasping for ad revenue anywhere it could find it. First came a Libé 2 and then a 3 and then a welter of supplements aimed at the kind of radicals who go red only at Club Med. Irritated leftwing readers, like “pepita,” posting on Libération’s reader forum, complained of getting more and more fatuous supplements, but fewer and fewer “surprises” and wondered which would come first, “the last special issue, the last Libé or my last Libé.”
“They were caught in a trap,” Hugeux said of the paper. “If you look at the young people who buy Libé, they are impulsive. They buy it when they want. They aren’t like the subscribers to Le Figaro who want their paper every morning by 8 o’clock.” As a result, Hugeux said, the current crisis, “was not at all unpredictable. The idea that you can have a wedding with a capitalist who can accept that you are losing money every day — it’s an illusion.”
Oui, and just because you’re getting screwed doesn’t mean you’re on a honeymoon, either. Rothschild’s motives aren’t very clear at all. At the time, Libération was losing more than $600,000 a month. Why go into the newspaper business in France, of all places? “Because he has a lot of money and there aren’t that many sports franchises for sale?” cracked Stanley Hertzberg, a retired of Wall Street Journal board member who lives in Paris and watches the French media with amused interest. “This would get him a little recognition at a cocktail party, maybe.” Like having your name on half the bottles of wine in France wouldn’t do the trick.
After the initial plunge, however, Rothschild grew nervous — especially when the paper began losing even more money and readers than before. “His people would go up there every week and get turned away,” Hertzberg told me. Reports began circulating that Rothschild was being humiliated and ridiculed by July as his money evaporated. “His plan seems to have been to give them enough rope to hang themselves, then step in and run it like a business,” Hertzberg said. “That might help. For example, they’ve been losing lots and lots of circulation — yet they’ve kept the same circulation manager for years. Who would do that? And they stopped carrying news. Their front page is just one Socialist party press release after another.” Not surprisingly, the reaction of the Socialist party to Libération’s ills is to demand even more taxpayer subsidies for the newspapers nobody reads.
“They need to go after their original market,” said Hertzberg. “But they can’t, because don’t have the money to do that.” Plus, their original market doesn’t have money, either. So, abandoned by the unwashed and unloved by the coiffed, Libération seems likely to stagger on into irrelevancy before finally going the way of Harry. Meanwhile, l’Humanité, the tiny Communist daily, having already achieved irrelevancy, seems likely follow soon. (The Wall Street Journal’s lovely editorial page notwithstanding, there are no conservative national dailies because conservative people can spot a bad business from a mile away. The future of the leftwing press, in France and elsewhere, is where it belongs, on the web — something the New York Times Company has discovered as the company’s stock continues its long-term decline to less than half what it was four years ago. Maybe they should hire some aging Maoists to help out around the office! Oops. Too late.)
Most observers agree that Rothschild is likely to put up a few more million, clean house a little and give the paper one last chance. “At this stage, I think he doesn’t want to give up,” said Huguex. “He has to convince the people around him that [investing in Libération] wasn’t a stupid adventure.” To make sure the message gets through, the paper’s staff posted a front page notice saying that even though they had been bullied before and were being bullied again, they would not be bullied in the future, especially by capitalists who want to pay their salaries.
The temporary solution seems to be in finding somebody with credible journalistic bona fides to reorganize the paper from an editorial, and not a business, point of view. Many predict Rothschild will appoint Edwy Plenel, a former Trotskyite to rehabilitate all those former Maoists. Plenel, you may recall, is the ex-editor of Le Monde who took the fall for his capo, Colombani, when the two were accused of scams that compromised the paper’s credibility. Plenel, Hugeux noted, “has some accounts to settle with Colombani.” Get on line, Edwy!
McDo? No! Dutifully, Libération seems to support Ségolène Royal’s run to the right, if only by covering the crackpots to her left. Thursday, for example, the paper carried the Socialists’ complaint that the campaign by Big-Mac-hating “shepherd” José Bove´ (I wrote about him here, who announced his Elysian ambitions in the paper this week, would “split the left” — presumably into pro-ironic and anti-ironic camps. Back in the good old days, José would have been Libé’s dream date. If God loves a joke as much as I do, He will come down on the right side and give France to José.
England wins again. The English football team has won one in a row! They would have tied their first World Cup match, but the Paraguayans graciously defeated themselves when their captain bonked a ball off his noggin and into his own goal. Then came England’s devastating defeat of Trinidad and Tobago, reported by ITV. Both Trinidad and Tobago, I think, are Louisiana hot sauces who don’t play soccer very well. The hat trick for England: this victory over Scotland, reported by the Times. Meanwhile, HM the Q, perhaps the only person in Great Britain without a binge drinking problem, celebrated her birthday by grabbing a pocket comb to make a fake moustache, going into a crouch and doing a Groucho routine, nearly reports the Telegraph. That queen! The drunks all laughed.
Cheers! Speaking of watching drunks, the acerbic bloggers at Eursoc take what may be a last look at Europe’s two weirdest drinking buddies. The highlight of the evening came when both men put on lame duck suits and posed for pictures. Here’s looking at you, Jacques.
— Denis Boyles is author of Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese.