Civil Liberties

A European Model for U.S. Newspapers?


When I wrote a column in May 2005 about how the Newspaper Preservation Act was an unnecessary, anti-competitive, and ultimately ineffective government intrusion into journalism, 15 of the original 28 "joint operating agreements" (JOAs) between two erstwhile competitors in the same city had melted into a single paper. Over at the journalism cud-chewing Poynter Institute website, Rick Edmonds gives an update to what he describes as "a modest monument to unintended consequences and ineffectual government intervention":

In the last two months the three biggest remaining JOAs have hit the skids. The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News are going to eliminate home delivered print editions several days of the week. Both Denver's Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer are poised to close unless a buyer can be found quickly (improbable in the current dismal market).

The current harsh economic climate exposes flaws that have been apparent all along in JOAs, which have dwindled from a peak of 28 to nine

Yet Edmonds, like some other recent commentators, is not quite ready to disavow federal meddling into the affairs of newspapers:

I don't think government subsidies to reinforce the fading civic function of newspapers is a ridiculous idea on its face. Some perfectly respectable countries like Sweden and Norway have been underwriting circulation for years. President Nicolas Sarkozy has a fast-track (and controversial) commission going to explore a government role in vitalizing the ailing French press.

Bzzzzt! First of all, as any morally serious person knows, Sweden and Norway are not respectable countries. Second, as it pertains to a country I'm actually not 100 percent ignorant of, France's model of journalism-state separation is nothing a self-respecting Yankee hack should ever covet. The first problem is spelled out right there at the link:

On the question of printing and distribution, there is a broad consensus among France's newspaper chiefs on the need to overhaul a costly and archaic system kept in place by powerful trade unions.

Papers are sold in France almost exclusively in a limited number of kiosks or specialist shops, most of which close early in the evening and on Sundays. Newspaper deliveries are rare.

Why did French trade unions–and not just any French trade unions, but a capital-C Communist French trade union–get a chokehold on "private" newspaper distribution and printing so tight that home delivery is basically unheard of, Sunday newspapers are the exception, and publishers are told how many distribution and production employees are required to deliver their product? Because of intervention by the French government.

After World War II, there was a major concern both in Paris and Washington that the Communist Party, which had been very active in the Resistance, would gain a foothold in post-war France the way it was doing throughout Central Europe (where democratic traditions were weaker, and the Soviet Union exercised parental control). So the French government was anxious to offer generous concessions to the commie trade union CGT (which, to be fair, decoupled from the Commnist Party in…um, 1995), in return for not crippling the country with strikes and fomenting revolutionary unrest. So CGT got the newspapers.

As a direct result, French dailies have been unable to experience most 20th century technology gains, nevermind the fancy stuff from the 21st. So they continue bleed money, shrink newsrooms that were never very big to begin with (by American standards), beg for subsidies from the government, and continue a relationship with power that one might charitably describe as peculiar. Sure, Sarkozy is attempting to reform this (as all presidents have before him), but he'll likely get nowhere, and the over-arching lesson for a free press remains: Lie down with the government, and you'll get up with fleas.