- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2006

PARIS — Spawned during the heady days of the country’s 1968 student riots, France’s iconic, Maoist-rooted Liberation newspaper faces an ignominious demise at the hands of the corporate bottom line.

The brainchild of philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre, Liberation rose to become the leftist newspaper of record for tens of thousands of students, intellectuals and union firebrands in a country where much of the press has a political slant.

Today, its readership has plummeted, its debts are mounting and its chances of survival are dimming rapidly.

Last week, Liberation’s boss, businessman Eduard Rothschild of the famed banking family, gave a special steering committee until Oct. 18 to find ways to reverse the paper’s sliding fortunes, which include an estimated $16.5 million loss this year alone.

Liberation’s staff members fear a drastic bloodletting as Mr. Rothschild, who bought a commanding 39 percent stake in the newspaper last year, tries to turn the struggling daily into a moneymaking enterprise.

Profit-making ambitions mark a sober and ironic denouement for the newspaper that once served as a mascot for leftist ideologues.

“Nobody can imagine that we’re going to save ‘Libe’ by pulling it toward the bottom,” deputy editor Pierre Haski told France’s leading Le Monde newspaper. “Obviously, savings are needed, but savings that are compatible with an editorial project.”

In some ways, Liberation’s woes reflect a larger struggle for survival in the newspaper industry, faced with growing competition from the Internet and, in the case of France, a new crop of free dailies.

Sixty years ago, the country boasted 28 national newspapers with a combined circulation of 6 million, according to a petition for reader support published by Liberation’s staff last month.

Today, 11 national newspapers remain and circulation has dropped to 2 million.

Although Liberation is among the top three dailies in France, alongside the conservative Le Figaro and center-left Le Monde, its 136,000 circulation is less than half of its two competitors.

“Some newspapers have adapted very well” to the changing times, said Marc Gruber, co-director of the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists. He cited Britain’s Guardian newspaper as one positive story of survival.

In Germany, he said, half of the country’s reporters are freelancers, an indication of the growing precariousness of the profession.

“The great fear of journalists these days is the race for profit, the tabloidization,” he said. “Their main objective is to keep the principles of investigation, and not to get caught up in stories about showbiz, or soccer, or what shoes are being worn by Segolene Royal,” a leading French Socialist politician.

So far, there is no indication that Liberation’s staff, which holds an additional 18 percent stake in the paper and can veto management decisions, and Mr. Rothschild have come to terms about where the newspaper should be heading.

In June, Mr. Rothschild dismissed the paper’s popular co-founder, Serge July, and ended a weekly supplement in a cost-savings move.

Several top reporters quit as a result. They included Florence Aubenas, a former hostage in Iraq.

Mr. Rothschild, who plowed $25 million into the paper last year, wants his investment to pay off.

French press reports said he hopes to overhaul the newspaper and its Web site while keeping its leftist editorial line.

Employees fear he may cut up to 100 of the newspaper’s 285-member staff.

Last month, they appealed on Liberation’s Web site for readers to invest in the newspaper’s future at up to $200 each.

Whether loyalty or nostalgia will bail out Liberation is anybody’s guess. The newspaper’s readership is graying and dwindling. Many younger French prefer to surf the Internet.

“I used to read Liberation a lot, but much less so in the past few years,” a young man said as he bought a TV magazine at a Paris newsstand. He gave only his first name, Raphael.

“Their editorials started to become a bit preachy. That’s not for me,” said Ramon Pino, owner of the newsstand.

“I was around when Liberation was founded,” said Mr. Pino, who has been selling newspapers in Paris for 30 years. “It was a bad newspaper then, in my opinion, but it struck a different tone. It wanted to be revolutionary. Now, it’s just like all the others.”

Still, Mr. Pino remains a dedicated Liberation reader. Asked what he would do if the newspaper went under, he paused.

“Nothing,” he said. “For me, there’s nothing else to read in the morning.”

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