Big French press find brand power helps online

PARIS Thu Mar 5, 2009 8:15am EST

1 of 2. A woman reads the French daily newspaper Le Figaro next to a newsstand in Nice, southeastern France, February 24, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Gaillard

PARIS (Reuters) - In a grimy part of eastern Paris a morning editorial conference is underway, similar to the planning meetings that go on in newsrooms everywhere, except this one is being blogged live and readers can join in.

The meeting is at Rue89, a news site (www.rue89.com) set up in 2007 by former journalists from the leftwing Liberation daily. It's one of several interactive sites to have appeared as a global crisis in the press squeezes French newspapers.

Sites like it -- the Gawker Media family of blogs in the United States, or Mediapart (www.mediapart.fr) and Bakchich (www.bakchich.info) in France -- have made a splash by filling niches that more traditional media have been slow to spot.

"There's someone saying that we don't have an international topic," says the journalist tracking comments on a laptop.

"What do they say? Do they have anything to suggest?" asks editor Pascal Riche.

In the end, the reader's suggestion of a story on Afghanistan is not taken up, but Riche believes such interaction between journalists and readers shows the future for news media in response to the challenge of the internet.

Rue89 uses the slogan "Information with three voices. Journalists, experts, Internautes," to describe a strategy of mixing its own journalism with commentary from outside specialists and internet-user contributions.

While some tech-savvy consumers may already have abandoned established print and television news in favor of collective information playgrounds such as wikipedia or Twitter, Riche sees clear limitations in such 'crowd-sourcing' of news.

"The idea you sometimes hear that everyone wants to be a journalist is completely idiotic," he said.

"People don't want to be ringing up police headquarters to check out some fact. But at the same time, they don't want journalism delivered from on high either."

A tiny startup compared with the big French dailies like Liberation, the conservative Le Figaro or the intellectual Le Monde, Rue89 has no paper, printing or distribution to pay for. It has nonetheless had some noteworthy scoops.

It broke the news that President Nicolas Sarkozy's wife had not voted for him in the 2007 election -- they divorced a few months later and Sarkozy went on to marry former supermodel Carla Bruni. It also reported unrest that has hit the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe well before most of the mainland press.

With a handful of journalists and no major investor to provide financial backing, Rue89 tries to make a virtue out of necessity, reacting quickly and staying much closer to its readership than big papers possibly can.

BIG BRAND FIGHTBACK

Now, as economic slowdown intensifies a scramble for advertising budgets, the big names are fighting back online: building or buying Web presence and attempting to lure readers at computer keyboards as well as over cafe and croissants.

Newspapers and broadcasters are being forced to follow advertisers online where advertising is cheaper by a factor of about 10, it is easier to target particular audiences and the success of campaigns can be better measured.

The economic crisis has come at a difficult time for the media industry, but it may be helping those big players who put their magnetic brand power to use in winning online attention.

According to data from OJD, the organization that monitors media circulation in France, big newspapers like Le Figaro or Le Monde or other major titles like sports daily L'Equipe attract some of the biggest online readerships.

"It's the same thing every time a new medium appears. It disturbs things at first," said Francis Morel, editor-in-chief of Le Figaro, the heavyweight conservative daily that began life as a satirical weekly in 1826.

"But at the same time, I think that the development of the internet is extremely positive for us," Morel said. "It reinforces the weight of Le Figaro, it strengthens the links with our readers and it brings in extra revenues."

With some exceptions, French newspaper sales have fallen steadily according to OJD figures, with Le Figaro's circulation last year averaging around 340,000: about 9,000 fewer than in 2004. Le Monde saw a sharper drop of over 40,000 to 340,000.

At the same time, their online readership has boomed. Lemonde.fr attracted nearly 48 million visits in January, while Lefigaro.fr attracted more than 23 million, according to the OJD, which placed both titles in the top 10 of generalist sites, alongside L'Equipe or the yellow pages.

"The situation with the internet news sites is pretty good, even very good," said OJD head Patrick Bartement.

"A few years ago, when we started measuring the internet sites, the general feeling was that they would be wiped out by the big portals like Yahoo but that hasn't happened. They have very powerful brands," he said.

The trend has been similar, and in some ways more dramatic, elsewhere: a gentle decline in print sales but online page views surging for news names such as Bild, Frankfurter Allgemeine, Corriere della Sera, El Pais, the Guardian and The Times.

In the United States, regional print newspapers have been falling like dominos, but some big names have carved out dominant positions online that have spread their influence well beyond their core users.

Among established English-language companies British Medical Journal, CNN, The Guardian and Nature Publishing Group have found significant supplementary online identities.

Nonetheless, a big question remains unanswered for all players: how to generate the kinds of returns newspapers used to make from people handing over coins at newsstands, particularly when advertising budgets are shrinking.

"There is a problem making money from the internet, there's no doubt about that," Morel said.

(Additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan in London, Danilo Masoni in Milan, Sarah Morris in Madrid and Franziska Scheven in Berlin; Editing by Sara Ledwith)

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