- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

PARIS

France's newspaper-of-record, Le Monde, is struggling for advertising and subscriptions. Ditto for another major daily, the conservative Le Figaro, while its leftist counterpart, Liberation, has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for years.

In France and across Europe, the newspaper industry is slashing staff and budgets, venturing into digital editions, revamping its look and desperately seeking new, revenue-generating ideas to stay afloat amid the global financial turmoil.

The faltering state of European dailies appears a grim replay of events across the Atlantic, where a slew of American newspapers have declared bankruptcy in recent months. Both groups are struggling with aging readerships and with a new, Internet-savvy generation accustomed to getting news fast and free.

“Structurally, the two markets are similar,” said Nicolas Reffait, media managing director at BearingPoint, a French consulting group.

But experts say the situation is not so dire in Europe, where newspaper circulation is declining more gradually than in the United States.

Some European governments are offering subsidies to the industry, and there are also a few bright exceptions - in Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany - where there may be a future for dailies after all.

“The trend really is flexibility, which newspapers haven't been known for in the past,” said Larry Kilman, spokesman for the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers. “What seems to be working is a spirit of entrepreneurship. Newspapers are trying everything - because nobody knows what's going to work.”

To be sure, there is no lack of sobering statistics.

Britain's most popular dailies have lost more than 2 million readers over the past decade while ad revenues have been slashed by about one-fifth. The situation is particularly dire in Scotland, where newspapers are facing their lowest sales on record. In France, only two national dailies generated a profit in 2007 - the sports newspaper L'Equipe and business-oriented Les Echos.

In January, the French government - which already subsidizes the newspaper industry indirectly through tax breaks and postage subsidies - threw another lifeline, when President Nicolas Sarkozy announced an $800 million stimulus package over three years.

The measures partly aim to overhaul the country's heavily regulated printing and distribution industry while increasing state spending on newspaper advertisements.

Mr. Sarkozy also proposes giving 18-year-olds free subscriptions to a newspaper of their choice, to cultivate a new generation of readers.

The proposals have received a mixed welcome, with some newspaper executives offering a cautious thumbs up.

Others are more skeptical. Media expert Jean-Marie Charon of the National Center for Scientific Research doubts that France's mainstream papers can attract the younger audiences they need.

”Young people aren't interested in the types of subjects they treat,” he said.

Still, a new crop of free dailies with a European presence appears to be bridging the generation gap, although the advertising revenues that power them have fallen sharply with the economic crisis.

They include 20 Minutes, now a staple for mass-transit commuters in major French cities, with a circulation of about 780,000 nationwide, says company President Pierre-Jean Bozo.

”We're trying to reinforce a readership of the under-50s that's young, urban and active, by information in the Anglo-Saxon way - facts, facts, facts,” Mr. Bozo says. “It's not a la Francaise, where there's too much analysis.”

20 Minutes' print and Internet editions have spinoffs in seven French cities, and Mr. Bozo describes a print-free future that includes delivering news on next-generation mobile phones.

“Why not?” he asks. “We're capable of sliding from one format to another.”

There are other scattered success stories. Berlin's Bild daily is going strong, with about 12 million readers and profits at record highs - thanks partly to partnering with German Internet service provider Deutsche Telekom to go online at reduced rates. It has also raised its newsstand price.

And in Sweden, Web site VG Nett is generating money from advertisers, and most recently from users through innovative offers involving such things as joining a weight-loss club.

“It doesn't sound like a traditional newspaper role, but it's an example of companies trying everything they can and continuing with what works,” Mr. Kilman said.

Still, he noted, Nordic dailies as a whole have an edge because roughly 90 percent of adults of all ages there read newspapers. In the Netherlands, NRC Handelsblad has launched a spinoff targeting a younger audience, nrcnext.nl, which is going strong, Mr. Kilman says.

Other newspapers are beginning to make money off their digital platforms. Still, he thinks, the old-fashioned daily remains a vital part of the news mix. “Print remains the money generator, the news generation of these different operations,” he said. “And we think it's going to stay that way for a while.”