Friday, March 7, 2014

Libération newspaper now fighting for its own ‘liberation’

Not a "brand" ... 40 years of Libération on display in a gallery near les Halles, Paris,
last October. Photo: David Robie

By DAVID ROBIE
JEAN-PAUL SARTRE would have turned in his grave over the fate of his cherished daily newspaper.

Founded by Sartre and Serge July more than four decades ago in the aftermath of the 1968 student riots in Paris, the left-leaning Libération has fallen on hard times.

But the company’s new shareholders came up with a plan to rescue it that has been greeted with derision by staff.

Founded on a non-conformist editorial policy that shunned commercialisation, the paper’s headquarters would be turned into a multimedia cultural centre, with a bar, restaurant, a TV studio and a social network “hub”.

This new proposal followed failed negotiations to put the Libération’s online edition behind a paywall.

The editor tasked with bringing this “vision” to fruition, Nicolas Demorand, who had been in the editorial hot seat since 2011, finally resigned last month after surviving four earlier votes of non-confidence.


Police outside the Libération’s offices in Paris after a gunman opened fire
last November, wounding a photographer. Video: cp24.com
Demorand was convinced this plan was a way to save the paper that saw its revenue slump by 15 percent last year.

He decided that by stepping down, it would open the door to a more “open” view of their future by the newspaper’s journalists.

Libération ... "we are a newspaper".
Troubled by the efforts to turn the famous title into a “brand”,  the 290 staff called a one-day strike and then published a front-page splash story denouncing the plan.

“We are a newspaper,” declared the banner headline. “Not a restaurant, not social media, not a TV studio, not a bar, not a start-up incubator.”

The editor tasked with bringing this “vision” to fruition, Nicolas Demorand, who had been in the editorial hot seat since 2011, finally resigned last month after surviving four earlier votes of non-confidence.

Demorand was convinced this plan was a way to save the paper that saw its revenue slump by 15 percent last year.

He decided that by stepping down, it would open the door to a more “open” view of their future by the newspaper’s journalists.

Deputy editorial director Alexandra Schwartzbrod told The Guardian the shareholders wanted to “do anything except journalism”.

Now The Guardian’s Kim Willsher reports from Paris that the major shareholder, Bruno Ledoux, has given a grim message for the staff through a "master class" for student journalists:
Libération ... changing the independent culture?
A "major restructuring" at French left-leaning daily newspaper Libération with the loss of journalists' jobs is inevitable, one of its main shareholders has warned.

Bruno Ledoux also refused to back down on plans to create a diversified Libération trademark, with cultural centre and social network, that sparked a staff strike last month.

Speaking at a 'master class' at the Institut Européen de Journalisme (IEJ) on Thursday, Ledoux, who holds 26 percent of shares in the newspaper, said he hoped to raise €12m this month to develop the title. The money, he said, would come from "three or four French entrepreneurs" who have not until now invested in the press.

However, he cautioned: "The day of the press patron is finished. A press business has to think of itself as an ordinary business, otherwise it's finished."

Ledoux's comments came three weeks after
Libération editor Nicolas Demorand resigned after journalists went on strike in opposition to the shareholders' vision of the future of the title. Demorand said the paper was "in crisis" and he was going because he suspected he was part of the problem.

Journalists had earlier downed tools after learning of the plan to revamp the paper's Paris headquarters into a conference venue and cultural centre in association with the designer Philippe Starck.

Staff responded by producing a front page declaring: "We are a newspaper … not a restaurant, not a social network, not a cultural space, not a television studio, not a bar and not an incubator for start-ups".

Asked about the hostility of
Libération staff to his plans, Ledoux, who made his fortune in property development, replied: "Everything that is new causes a bit of fear at Libé … but ideas are changing".

He added: "Those who are against (the plans) aren't obliged to stay. The paper does not belong to the journalists. We are not in the Soviet Union."

He criticised journalists who he said "produced one article a month" or who "refuse to write for the web" or on subjects that were not in their field.

"We have to change the culture … to be a more efficient organisation," he told journalism students.

"But it's not journalists against shareholders or visa-versa, which is absurd. We are together in this project. To me, this culture of opposition is baffling."

He said the plans, that included the possibility of creating a
Libé television and radio, did not threaten the paper.

"It's complementary. The newspaper is at the heart of the system. To get rid of the paper would be a serious error, because that would get rid of all the legitimacy (for the plan). If
Libération disappeared tomorrow, there wouldn't be another Libération … but the idea of only a newspaper is finished," he said.

Ledoux's comments will anger journalists at the newspaper, co-founded by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in 1973. They say the shareholders' proposals trade on the
Libération name, but make no mention of "journalism".

Nicolas Cori, a journalist and union representative at the newspaper told
The Guardian at the time, staff were "extremely worried" about their future and that of the paper.

"The shareholders have the money but no interest in journalism. All we are saying is talk to us about journalism and we can talk."

Demorand's resignation came after several votes of no confidence in the editor and months of negotiations over proposals to put the paper's online edition behind a pay wall, to reduce staff, introduce party-time working hours and earlier deadlines, that ended in stalemate.

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