Body blows plus move to digital may render ‘Libération’ old news
French left-wing title was newspaper of the baby-boom generation
Libération journalists seized control of the newspaper on February 7th and published an edition the following day with the front page headline: “We are a newspaper.” Photograph: Pierre Andrieu/AFP/Getty Images
For journalists, few things are as sad as witnessing the death of a newspaper. In recent years, the tabloid France Soir and the economic daily La Tribune perished. The communist newspaper L’Humanité is on its last legs. But those losses do not compare to the death foretold of Libération .
Founded 41 years ago by Jean-Paul Sartre and Serge July, in the wake of the May 1968 revolution, Libération occupies a unique position in the history of French newspapers, as the only daily founded in the second half of the 20th century that survived.
“ Libération was very left-wing, but at the same time liberal and libertarian,” says Patrick Eveno, professor of media history at the Sorbonne. “It was the newspaper of the baby boom generation, very innovative in its relationship with readers, with clever, sometimes shocking headlines, original layouts and photos. It’s a newspaper that had a soul, that was a great human and intellectual adventure.”
In 2006, Edouard de Rothschild, a scion of the banking family whose main interest is horse racing, became the principal shareholder of Libé , as it is still affectionately known. Rothschild evicted the leftist founding director, July.
“Since the arrival of Rothschild and then Bruno Ledoux as the main shareholders, no one has embodied the newspaper. There’s no one to give it an editorial line,” says Eveno. “It’s like an old oceanliner, drifting. It keeps doing what it knew how to do, but the shareholders won’t invest enough to relaunch it, and editors haven’t had the oomph it would take to convince them.”
Three years ago, shareholders appointed Nicolas Demorand, a star radio presenter who was compared to the young Orson Welles, to be director of Libé . Demorand had no newspaper experience, and was not used to team work. On his rare appearances at morning conferences, he focused on the screen of his smart phone.
Staff punished Demorand with four votes of no confidence in three years, including a motion for his departure last November, approved by 89.9 per cent of employees. Someone pushed chewing gum into the lock of his office door, to prevent him entering.
Demorand finally resigned on February 13th. “I hope with all my heart that my departure will facilitate the dialogue which must be re-established to pull the newspaper out of crisis,” he wrote in a farewell email to staff.
But management and journalists remain at daggers drawn, and there’s no money to pay salaries next month. Ledoux, the bête noire of Libé journalists, has appealed to the French finance ministry for a loan, and solicited a “symbolic” contribution from shareholders to keep the newspaper afloat. It will be a terrible blow to François Hollande’s administration if France’s main left-wing paper goes bankrupt under socialist rule.
Libé’s headquarters in the rue Béranger, near the Place de la République, are its most valuable asset. The converted multi-storey parking lot has become a landmark, and shareholders earlier this month proposed turning it into the “Flore of the 21st century”, after the café in Saint-Germain-des-Prés where existentialism was born. The shareholders’s letter foresaw “a cultural and conference space including a television stage, radio studio, digital newsroom, restaurant, bar and incubator for start-ups”.
The shareholders’ plan prompted a mutiny by journalists, who refuse to see Libé turned into a theme park. They seized control of the paper on February 7th, and published an edition the following day with the front page headline, “We are a newspaper.”
Ledoux appears not to have given up the plan. In negotiations with journalists last week, his representative proposed dividing Libé into two companies: one for the building; the other for the journalists.
The investigative website Médiapart has revealed that Ledoux owns the rue Béranger building through offshore companies based in Luxembourg, the Virgin Islands and Panama. He is appealing a €40 million bill for back taxes.
Newsstand sales of Libé dropped 28.8 per cent last year. No one is sure how much longer the paper can continue to appear. “We must find a more clear editorial line,” the editor-in-chief Fabrice Rousselot wrote on February 14th. “We must be more incisive, more surprising. Less provocative than in the past, but more intelligent…”
As the transition to digital media forces newspapers to reconsider editorial and economic models, Libé’s sinking fortunes are closely observed.
Can print journalism be saved? I asked Eveno. “It depends whether you mean the paper printing industry or journalism ,” he replied. “It can be saved if you have a large subscriber base which you gradually shift to digital subscriptions… Four French newspapers – La Croix , Le Figaro , Les Echos and Le Monde – have enough subscribers to survive. Le Monde has performed best so far, with 155,000 paper subscribers, and 45,000 online… Libération ’s proble m was that it relied mainly on newsstand sales, and very little on subscriptions.”