Do free papers mean a free press?

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Later this month, Swedish publishing firm Metro International and its Norwegian competitor 20 Minutes hope to launch two free daily newspapers in Paris. But their plans have caused fury among France’s powerful print unions who say the new titles would threaten hundreds of jobs in their industry. Marc Burleigh reports.

France’s powerful print unions might have won the first battle in their fight to prevent two Scandinavian companies publishing free newspapers in Paris.

But whether they will win the war is another question altogether.

On Monday Swedish firm Metro International announced that it was postponing the planned launch of its Paris freesheet in order to ensure that the title was distributed by union-approved workers.

But the company insisted that the paper would hit the streets within "a few days", a pledge it seems determined to stick to.

France’s CGT printers union has sniffily branded publications produced in other countries by Metro and Norwegian firm 20 Minutes as "pretend" newspapers.

The union adds that the two companies show "disdain for the most basic workers' rules and disdain legal obligations," and warned it is "ready to oppose Metro's arrival, even by the toughest means possible."

The SGJ-FO journalists union does not go as far, but it is worried that the new arrivals could steal readers and a piece of the already shrinking advertising market from the existing newspapers sold in the capital's newsstands.

France-Soir, a struggling French newspaper, said last Thursday that its printing press would turn out 300,000 copies of the Paris version of Metro, while the French rail authority confirmed it would allow 20 Minutes to be made available in the near future from dispensers in underground Paris train stations.

The sudden arrival of the two titles caught the French press industry by surprise.

Union leaders and editors had thought that the upstart groups had been stymied by Paris city hall, which had stalled requests by Metro for its newspaper to be distributed in the capital's metro system, which the RATP transit authority already used to hand out its A Nous Paris newspaper.

But they underestimated the determination of the Scandinavians, who have already invaded other cities around the world with their formula of easy-to-read news snippets on pages paid for entirely by advertising and put together by small teams of around 15 people.

20 Minutes claims to have become the third most-read newspaper in Switzerland two years after being launched in Zurich's train and subway stations.

And Metro International - which runs its foreign operations from London - has launched 21 free newspapers around the world since 1995, including in several European cities, Boston and Philadelphia in the United States, Buenos Aires in Argentina and Santiago in Chile.

All but its four oldest versions - those in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Hungary and Prague - lose money, though the aim is for all to break even within three years, says the firm’s investor relations director, Matthew Hooper.

In Paris, Metro plans to get around the distribution hurdle by employing 500 to 600 people to hand out the free newspaper out. It has already received police authorisation to do so in busy areas apart from a few districts like the upmarket Champs-Elysees.

France's existing big newspapers, all of which are centred on the capital, have done little more than note the arrival of the competition, so far without signs of panic.

Last Friday's edition of Le Monde quoted an unnamed city official as saying the free newspapers "pose the environmental problems of keeping the city clean" as well as undermining the paid press, while the Liberation tracked down the head office of Metro to find only a post-box.

Liberation also said Metro had convinced its overseas advertisers to fill the new Paris Metro's pages with trendy ads so the cold French shoulder it was receiving did not make an impression on its pages.

But Metro insisted this week that the existing French press has nothing to fear from its planned new paper.

"The paper is complementary to - and even marginal when compared with - paying newspapers," the company’s CEO Pelle Tornberg said.

©Agence France Presse 2002

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