Not Made by Robots
Will print media be dead by 2033? Jeff Bezos said last year that it would; yet he has just bought the Washington Post. He owns Amazon, and 1% of his fortune was enough to buy a newspaper that 20 years ago was worth 10 times as much as he paid for it, so he can afford a few impulse purchases. Buying the paper that broke the Watergate story cost him only a little more than building his millennium clock, which should still be keeping time in 10,000 years.
Newspapers are not selling well, and right now they’re going cheap. In five years, circulation has fallen by 13% in North America, 24.8% in western Europe and 27.4% in eastern Europe (1). Ad revenue is being lost to the net, and the market value of papers that depended on it has collapsed. In the US, it has fallen by 90% in 20 years, not counting inflation (2).
This could be good news if it helped to rid us of a few purely commercial publications. But that isn’t happening. Publications aligned with the dominant worldview or the decrees of advertisers rake in the money, everything else struggles. Nicolas Beytout has been president of Les Echos (he defended the interests of Louis Vuitton Moët-Hennessy and Bernard Arnault, the current owners of the paper) and, before that, editor of Le Figaro (he defended Nicolas Sarkozy with equal vigour). This May he launched a new daily paper, L’Opinion. It sold hardly 3,000 copies on the newsstands, yet handouts from billionaires allowed him to earn €12-15m (3). If Le Monde diplomatique was given €4,000 for every copy it sold, we wouldn’t have to appeal to readers.
France’s bosses seem to have a soft spot for L’Opinion, which declares itself “neoliberal, pro-business and European”, much like Arnault’s Les Echos. Serge Dassault’s Le Figaro calls itself “neoliberal, conservative and European” (4). How can anybody claim that neoliberal and European ideas are not promoted in France? The famous Christine Ockrent, a journalist who thinks like a multinational, has just supplemented her weekly show on France Culture with a morning news roundup on i-Télé; Laurence Parisot, on stepping down as head of the French employers’ association MEDEF, immediately found work with competing radio stations RTL and Europe 1. Parisot is a director of BNP Paribas, Natixis and Michelin (or of their parent companies), so she is unlikely to report on them, or the tax havens they use, without bias.
In France, it’s not just big business that is compassionate to the ailing press; the state gives it hundreds of millions of euros a year, equivalent to 7.5-11% of the publishers’ overall turnover (5). It sponsors the postal delivery of newspapers, but spends more on papers fat with ads than on slimmer, independent, publications. Taxpayers also sponsor the hand delivery of daily papers €37m a year, and give another €9m to the poorest dailies.
So much government charity, often carelessly targeted, gives rise to paradoxes: Dassault’s Le Figaro, which is fiercely critical of public spending on education but not on defence(the Dassault Group is a manufacturer of military aircraft), received €17.2m between 2009 and 2011. L’Express, almost as critical of state handouts, got €6.2m. Le Point, which likes to criticise the “nanny state”, got €4.5m. Local “forums” run by Libération (€9.9m) and Le Nouvel Observateur (€7.8m), which have connections in the present government, are funded by regions and municipalities headed by Socialists.
Thirty years ago, the Socialist Party was aware of these issues: “A review of [government] aid to the press is essential. ... We must put an end to a system under which the richest receive the most help and the poorest are the most neglected. ... Aid to the press should also differentiate more clearly between publications, and those that carry political and general news should not be treated the same as the leisure press. It should distinguish, particularly in terms of sponsorship of postal distribution, between publications that benefit from a high volume of advertising and those that have none” (6).
This excellent analysis was not followed up. In January 2012, shortly before she became France’s minister for culture and communication, Aurélie Filipetti said: “We must reform [government] aid to the press, which has become too dispersed, and a third of which goes to leisure publications, which do not really need it.”Perhaps she had just learned that TV magazines had received €25m over two years (7)? Maybe we won’t have to wait 30 years for her to take action. But it might be too late anyway.
No free news
Will it also be too late for Le Monde diplomatique? Our existence is not under immediate threat. Our overall distribution has declined (by 2.6% in the first half of 2013) but that is far less than most papers and newsstand sales are steady (dailies have seen two-digit falls) (8). These results may not be all we hoped for but they are honourable. We don’t distribute our paper for free under the guise of bundled “sales”. We don’t give away gadgets as a welcome gift to new subscribers. And we don’t lure subscribers with misleading prices. We were able to balance our books in 2012, but the coming year will be harder: most of our costs will rise but we can’t put our prices up again; and the decline in consumer purchasing power is affecting sales of some of our special issue publications. In this climate, stabilising distribution would be a heroic feat; we’re not beating off sponsors.
We believe there is no such thing as free news (9). For that reason, most articles in the French edition can be read online only after six months, for a limited period of two years, and then only because the cost of the articles and of putting them online is covered by income from readers, and from gifts to the parent edition from readers anxious to guarantee our independence. (Donations currently exceed all our ad revenue and make an important overall contribution. Last year 2,075 of you gave €177,500 to the French edition — 20% more than in 2011 — allowing us to complete a number of development plans.)
The debate over going online and “giving” news away has contradictions. Often it’s those who complain that life is precarious for journalists, writers, photographers and artists who then demand that everything should be free, immediately, on the net, to promote ideas and culture. But paying journalists more to write articles that are then given away doesn’t add up. Should journalism be charity work for a privileged few who already have another job? Should reporters slaves to a business model based on ads, and on algorithms linked to Facebook, Amazon and Google?
It’s likely that news will be further digitised and automated; its collection and organisation will be entrusted to robots. A section of the online press is already happy to aggregate news according to its consumers’ preferences, on the basis of their reading patterns (10). If journalists continue to gather and write news at their computers, their jobs can be (and are being) offshored, like those of call centre operatives. Why should newspapers maintain foreign correspondents to paraphrase articles from the local press, which everyone can now read online with improved automatic translation systems?
Still room for papers that inquire
Some kinds of content are less easily automated or offshored. This is where Le Monde diplomatique has an advantage. Field research and analysis, especially when the story needs historical context or international perspective or requires political engagement, demand expertise, which robots won’t have any time before Bezos’s clock stops working.
The future of print media is under threat — except for those publications that go beyond collecting news and instantly publishing it online. There is still room for papers that comment, compare, inquire, analyse and verify. And for papers that invite their readers to share their ideas, to help rebuild our world, and to fight apathy and despair. But we cannot just produce ideas: we need to consider the conditions necessary for their realisation. It’s no longer enough to make progressive proposals: we must also ask if they are compatible. We must be sure of our analysis of the world, of society, power relations, the relative weight of social groups, the potential for alliances between them, of international solidarity that is not just an alliance between big businesses. We have to try to identify a few key proposals that may trigger other changes, and consider strategies for achieving them. A robot can’t do that, and neither can most newspapers.
Le Monde diplomatique is unique, especially when compared with the online media. On the web, there is a glut of news because of the proliferation of content and platforms; billions of items — text, sound and video — are posted each day. Our French edition limits itself to 28 pages a month, since we prefer pertinence to gossip. There is a cacophony of information producers; hundreds of millions of people use social networks to share information on their interests. Le Monde diplomatique relies on just a few hundred collaborators with rare combinations of skills, experts in their fields who do not take short cuts. Our priorities are decided by our editors, unlike the online media where Google and the other search engines have a quasi-monopoly on the means of hierarchical organisation of information.
Everything is coming together to destroy our kind of journalism. The distribution network is unravelling because publishers cheat paper sellers every time they offer subscriptions at prices that unreasonably undercut the newsstands. Government subsidies, instead of being reserved for titles that deal in ideas, are wasted on leisure magazines. Electronic applications such as iTunes make more money for their developers than for the publications that use them.
None of this will stop us — with our 50 editions across the world — pursuing our intellectual quest, as long as you are interested enough to give us the financial means. We wouldn’t want to ask anybody else.
LMD in English
The English edition of Le Monde diplomatique, like the almost 50 other print or online foreign language editions in the paper’s remarkable global family, offers the major stories from the Paris edition in a concise format. Some of you will remember that LMD began, online, in 1997; a couple of years later it appeared in print. Now you can read it in online, print and digital editions (vastly popular and available on your tablets, iPhones and computers via our website, iTunes or the App Store).
You can find LMD in print in selected bookstores and news outlets, but most readers prefer direct subscriptions. With good reason. Subscriptions to the print edition are delivered to your door; we throw in free access to a unique online archive stretching back 17 years, and because our administrative costs are lower, we are able to pass on what we save to our subscribers. We can offer greater reductions still if you pay by direct debit — or now, for the first time, through PayPal — or if you take out a two-year subscription.
Our archive, also available to our online subscribers, makes LMD valuable to institutions as well as individual readers: its IP subscriptions are popular with universities, libraries, thinktanks, government departments and NGOs (our subscribers include the British Parliament and Foreign Office, Unesco, Unifil and Interpol).
As Serge Halimi writes (see above), “we believe there is no such thing as free news”. So our monthly content is not free online (though at mondediplo.com you can freely access our interactive Diplomatic Channels). All income from our readers goes to bring you the very best product we can — without commercial advertising. Please keep your subscriptions and gifts coming to help. In the words of John Berger, “To make sense of what is happening in the world, behind the misinformation, Le Monde diplomatique is essential reading, every month, every year.”