Time to Stop and Read
Our usual answer to the complaint that we’ve neglected activities or a cause is “we haven’t the time” — to read books or see films that are too long, or stroll round a museum or even down a street. We can’t read an article on a new subject without being interrupted, wherever we are, by an urgent call for our attention.
The new technologies, supposed to help us save time, are partly to blame, making it quick and cheap to move, to research, to send information and to communicate. But life is becoming dominated by demands for rapid response, and there are so many more tasks to be performed. “We have no time to stand and stare” (1).
Sometimes we haven’t the money, either: although a magazine, like Le Monde diplomatique, or a newspaper, is not that expensive, it is still a lot for people with limited means — working, unemployed, students, retired. That’s one reason why newspapers are closing down. Readership is steadily declining as reading papers, especially those that aren’t free, becomes another chore in a heavy schedule. Xavier Niel, co-owner of internet provider Free and Le Monde, thinks there will be no print newspapers at all in a generation.
It might be different if the funding went to screen or tablet versions: the same thing in a different form. Information on science, culture and leisure would reach more people faster. Moreover democracy would hardly suffer if periodicals whose only purpose is to boost their proprietor’s profits (or influence) were to cease publication. But the new information technologies do not provide the same number of jobs or resources for journalists. They must work for nothing, that is, have some other source of income, like most bloggers: the profession is no longer certain of a future.
Decline of print
There used to be newspapers everywhere: on trains, on the underground, in cafes, at political meetings. How often now do you see anyone with a paper that isn’t a free handout? Circulation in western Europe and the US has dropped by 17% in the past five years. In France, even elections no longer get people rushing to buy papers: sales of daily papers between January and August 2012 were 7.6% down on the same period last year. And sales of the top sports paper, L’Equipe, fell in July and August, during the Olympics.
The print media in France resort to bigger headlines and more sensation, and easily compare anything — a provocative cartoon or a public outburst by some fundamentalist group — with “the darkest hours in our history”. Television’s information channels add to the clamour. It has become easy to predict which outrage will attract media attention and so sideline anything less immediately appealing. The papers are full of scandals and disasters their proprietors think will cause a momentary buzz. But why should readers pay for what they can get for free and in abundance elsewhere?
Especially on the net. In France, 35 million people read a newspaper every day and 25 million visit at least one press site a month online. But net users believe that they must get something for nothing — although they will happily buy an expensive computer, smart phone or tablet, often to consult press sites that are free to use. Staff who collect, edit and check information get little income from online users. Thus, a parasitic economic structure is gradually being created, in which some reap all the rewards and others pay all the costs of “free” access.
Because of the internet, The Guardian is now number one in readership in the UK, and third in the world, but that did not prevent it from losing $73m last year and making around a hundred journalists redundant (with more to come). The increase in digital traffic has required more investment and coincided with a drop in paper sales. Six million people in the UK read at least one Guardian article a week but only 211,000 buy the paper each day. This small, and declining, number is funding the site net users read for free. This journey will end one day, for everyone, when the engine runs out of fuel.
Editors also lose on advertising. The economics of “free” online papers were modelled on commercial radio and the free printed papers handed out at underground stations. But commercial radio is all about private radio stations, their programmes regularly punctuated with advertising. This does not work with information online. Press sites may be good at attracting users but they receive little advertising revenue. The main beneficiaries from this are the search engines which, according to Marc Feuillée, president of the French national daily paper union SPQN, have become “mega advertising conglomerates, monsters devouring almost all our revenue from broadcasting ... Between 2000 and 2010, advertising turnover for search engines rose from €0 to €1.4bn and from €0 to €250m for the [online] press” (2). Google, with detailed personal information, and the ability (like Facebook) to sell this data to advertisers who will use it to hunt their prey, operates via “fiscal optimisation” in Ireland and Bermuda: this wealthy multinational pays almost no taxes.
To be characteristically frank, the circulation of Le Monde diplomatique’s parent French edition has fallen by 7.2% since January, because of that lack of time and money, and public weariness at seeing a crisis develop (just as we said it would, long before anyone else)which we cannot solve on our own, a challenge to the economic and social order that has no political outlet.
If Le Monde diplomatique’s financial situation has deteriorated in France, it’s also because of a further drop in advertising revenue (3). Many readers had reservations about this source of income and we promised it would never account for more than 5% of our turnover; but in 2012 it will be less than 2%. A strict policy on subscription charges — we do not cut prices or give subscribers anything but what they order — and an annual appeal for donations to help fund our development projects will help to reduce our losses. But in 2012 we will make a loss. And there is no guarantee that things will change next year.
There are a few rays of light. A new electronic edition will be launched in the next few months, so readers will be able to move straight from a format that replicates the print paper to one suited to all screens (4). A special edition for tablets is also in the pipeline. In response to interest in our archives — sales of our latest DVD-ROM are well above the expected level — we will soon be offering all our subscribers, for a small fee, immediate access to any article since our first issue in May 1954. And subscribers and non-subscribers will have access to all our documentary material for a modest fee. These developments, which we hope to introduce early next year, have required substantial investment, but we expect regular returns that will guarantee our independence.
A wall of silence
But we have to make a concerted effort to boost sales. More people need to know we exist as the paper is less often seen on French newsstands, as the distribution network crumbles, and newsstands and newsagents go out of business (918 in France in 2011 alone). The friendly promotion Le Monde diplomatique enjoyed from other French media outlets has suddenly hit a wall of silence. Between 19 March and 20 April, press reviews on Europe 1, RTL and France Inter quoted 133 publications, including even France Football, but not Le Monde diplomatique. This is poor support for the most widely read French newspaper in the world, with 51 editions in 30 languages.
But it doesn’t really matter because our readers are our social network, and we rely on you to tell people about the paper and its values, and encourage its spirit of intellectual adventure and commitment. We rely on you to convince them that, at least once a month, there is a publication worth concentrating on, worth thinking about. And that it may be useful to take time, away from the frenzy, to stop and think.
Because the real purpose of an independent newspaper is to help readers to learn and understand. It can make order out of chaos, not just add more random information to that chaos. It doesn’t have to support leaders when their actions belie their claims. It can calmly identify and publicise the causes of conflicts. It can remember the West’s colonial and environmental sins, as well as its valuable contributions — trade unionism, feminism, ecology. It can notice that the South, the emerging countries dismantling the colonial order, contains reactionary forces, predatory elites and rebel movements (the giant Foxconn in Taiwan and the workers in Shenzhen).
A truly independent newspaper can help clear the way for new social, economic and ecological relationships in periods of cuts and resignations, while continuing to analyse social democracies. The ideas of a tax on financial transactions (5) and a maximum income (6) first appeared in Le Monde diplomatique. Both ideas took hold. According to many reports, our article on a maximum income was directly responsible for François Hollande’s proposal to introduce a 75% tax on income over €1m. A newspaper can therefore remind us that the press need not always back industrial and business interests against those who want to save the planet and change the world.
The survival and development of a paper like ours does not depend just on the small team that produces it, however devoted. We know we can count on you, and together, we will take all the time we need.