Several American media outlets have reported in the last few days about the French government’s new initiative aimed at resuscitating their print media. President Sarkozy—lately seen flitting to meet the Dalai Lama in Poland and floating to Gaza to barter a ceasefire, certainly the most hyperactive of Western leaders—has announced a vast increase in state support for print media. Included in this is a pilot program by which teenagers will be given a free yearlong subscription to the newspaper of their choice on their 18th birthdays. In our frigid print media climate, with The New York Times flailing and other papers doing far worse, Sarkozy’s program seems like the kind of warm, fuzzy socialism that might help the industry weather the global recession. That’s with the added benefit of forcing social and civic consciousness on unsuspecting youngsters, which you apparently can’t get from online media. Or MyFaceSpace, I guess.
It’s not a bad idea, though an even better one would be to give young French people free subscriptions to the newspaper of their choice and the newspaper at the other end of the political spectrum, say Le Monde on the left and Le Figaro on the right. Unlike their major American counterparts, these French papers have given up the faulty illusion of editorial objectivity. Often, one need only trawl a list of the companies that own or are invested in American newspapers to understand where their interests lie. No paper is entirely truthful: declaring an ideological position allows the reader to go in understanding the slant of the coverage, which makes searching for inevitable bias easier and encourages the reader to consult more than one news source. The Internet has the potential to encourage wider reading; French people turning 18 this year may barely remember a time before they started getting news online. A program for free subscriptions to multiple newspapers would be impractical, beyond the scope of Sarkozy’s fuzzy socialism. But such an initiative would reflect in print the easy access to information online and in other media; it would be a powerful statement about Sarkozy’s investment in the civic engagement of France’s young citizens.
I’ll pause so you can clear the image from your mind of youths pouring over Le Monde on the Boulevard Saint-Germain before mentioning that the Swiss may have one-upped monsieur le president. Well, they haven’t yet, but listen: Mary Lou Fulton reported in the Online Journalism Review last week about a collaboration between the Swiss postal service and a German tech company that is developing a personalized newspaper:
You register online and select up to seven newspaper sections by checking a box…. You can change your selections daily as long as you do so before the nightly 7 pm cutoff[.]
The participating newspapers [including The Washington Post, the leftish Swiss Tages-Anzeiger and others] deliver their product in PDF format to the Swiss Post, which then sends them to Syntops where the company's custom software, Syntops GmbH, assembles individualized PDFs. The PDFs are printed and dropped off to Swiss Post by 7 a.m. for delivery to the home by 11 a.m. There also is a digital version of Personal News available online.
The eclecticism of the Internet is married to the familiarity of a newspaper and tailored to your interests. Fulton goes on to point out that, among other benefits, this has the potential to eliminate readers’ complaints when a newspaper changes a comic, for example. For their personal newspaper, they can find Garfield elsewhere (but why?). This is a really appealing idea—I would prefer not to have to bellyache when, apparently sooner rather than later, The Washington Post eliminates its book review section. But change is one thing, elimination another: what if Michael Dirda, for my money the best book critic in the country, takes a buy-out from the Post and disappears from print? Could a personalized newspaper model employ Google-style reader-specific advertising, and help stop newspaper revenue from hemorrhaging? Fulton thinks so, and the possibilities are intriguing. Would Sarkozy be willing to let French 18-year-olds pick their own content?
You can check out the Swiss/German experiment here; according to a friend in Switzerland it’s not well known, but it might catch on. In the spirit of the possibilities of a personalized newspaper, I thought I’d make my own. I’m keeping to the rule of seven sections:
1) Top stories from the International Herald Tribune A NYT operation with some of the same stories from that paper, I know, but a far wider variety of international news. Analogous to CNN International vs. CNN.
2) UK news from The Guardian. I currently live in the UK and this paper has second-to-none reporting and brilliant columnists including Polly Toynbee, Seumas Milne, and George Monbiot. I like being able to tell my coverage has left-wing tendencies, not so I’m being told what I want to hear, but so I can check elsewhere if I think the coverage gets too pink. If I were going to be really honest I’d also have UK news from Rupert Murdoch’s The Times.
3) Local news from [insert Baltimore newspaper here] Charm City is home, but the Baltimore Sun has been severely debilitated in recent years, and The Examiner has not stepped up yet. This brings up a good question: could alternative newspapers, like the Baltimore City Paper, be included in a personal newspaper?
4) Local news from the Cumberland Times-News. My hometown newspaper, for better or worse. I can see the appeal a personalized newspaper would have for people, like me, who divide their time between multiple places.
5) Book World from The Washington Post. I’d also take the Post’s political coverage, but let’s face it: the Internet was made for political journalism.
6) Dining & Wine from The New York Times Still the food capital of the States, and you can’t beat The Minimalist.
7) Culture Section from The Guardian. Repetitive, I know, but the paper has the best film critic (Peter Bradshaw) and the best theater critic (Michael Billington) of any UK daily.