Demise of venerable organ spotlights the crisis of the newspaper trade

France-Soir, a once-mighty newspaper born of the French Résistance, is to cease its publishing its printed edition, and instead become a web-only service.

Looking at the brash but thin France-Soir of today, it is difficult to believe that this once-mighty newspaper was born of the French Résistance. It is much less difficult to believe that its imminent death - in print form - has been caused by reader resistance.

The fate of France-Soir, which has finally exhausted the patience of Alexander Pugachev, its Russian owner, and will exist only on the internet from January 1, is illustrative of the woes of the newspaper industry and the failure of a specific title.

It is not, after all, the first newspaper to abandon the printed page for its main activity. The Christian Science Monitor(CSM), a US newspaper with an equally interesting pedigree, made the move two years ago. Founded by the Christian Science pioneer Mary Baker Eddy in 1908 with a proclaimed mission "to injure no man but to bless all mankind", the CSM was published for 101 years but, apart from a weekly print magazine, now appears entirely online.

France-Soir was always intended as a popular paper. But would Pierre Lazareff, who developed it during the Second World War from the main Resistance publication, Défense de la France, recognise it in its troubled later life?

In 1970, 18 months before Lazareff died, the paper achieved a record sale of 2.2 million copies for the edition recording the death of Gen Charles de Gaulle. It also broke the 2 million barrier in 1963, when John F Kennedy, the US president, was assassinated.

That was exceptional. But even in less extraordinary times, the circulation rose dramatically to reach 1.3 million in 1957, and the paper was still selling 800,000 copies daily in 1972. The slump in recent years has been equally sharp, a succession of owners failing to stem the haemorrhage so that by 2009, the year Mr Pugachev acquired the title, sales were in free fall and stood, on his own figures, at just 20,000 paid-for copies in France.

He told the conservative daily Le Figaro, once France-Soir's stablemate, that despite his investment of €70m (Dh357.2m), sales have recovered only to about 40,000, less than half the figure needed to attract sufficient advertising to reverse losses of €31m last year and €19m projected for this year. Even then, Mr Pugachev said, France-Soir's circulation would have needed to climb to 200,000 to reach break-even point.

"It cannot be achieved," he said bluntly, citing the high cost of paper, printing and distribution. With a further injection of €10m, he hopes to make the Web-only operation viable within four years, expanding an existing audience estimated at 1.6 million to 3.6 million, depending on source.

In its declining years, the newspaper has tried to meet the challenge of electronic media with a bold tabloid approach influenced by British and American examples. This has produced "great, reader-centric" journalism, according to François Dufour, who co-owns a successful group of children's newspapers that will next month launch an Arabic edition of one title, Le Petit Quotidien(The Little Daily), under licence in Qatar.

France-Soir has also used shock tactics. In 2006, French Muslims were outraged by a decision to reproduce Danish cartoons denigrating Islam, and the controversy led to the dismissal of the director of publishing.

Despite Mr Dufour's analysis - he blames successive ownership changes - France-Soir has clearly failed as a product.

Around the world, publishers constantly look for ways of enabling newspapers to survive. In Britain, the Evening Standard, also Russian-owned (by the billionaire businessman Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny) is now given away to London commuters after 180 years with a cover price.

In Paris, Mr Pugachev has avoided that route. But will his online France-Soir succeed? If some media commentators are right, he may have to consider making readers pay for editorial content, as the Financial Times, some of Rupert Murdoch's publications and now The New York Times have done, or introduce other ways of generating online income.

"The blunt truth is, online advertising is a numbers game," the US-based British writer Paul Carr said in one of his final columns before leaving techcrunch.com after its takeover by AOL. Noting that even The New York Times and Britain's Guardian struggled to make money online, he said the MailOnline in London and The Huffington Post in the US were perhaps the only general interest Web sources to buck the trend, doing so "by selling millions of pages of animal stories and celebrity fluff".

It is not clear whether Mr Carr knew of a new project planned by The Huffington Post, which has also been bought by AOL. But Mr Pugachev is sure to be paying close attention in the coming months: after building a huge English-speaking readership (37 million "unique" hits claimed for August), The Huffington Post is about to launch a French edition. And its business partner will be a grand old trooper from the inky trade, Le Monde.

business@thenational.ae

Published: October 23, 2011 04:00 AM

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