Coincidence. At the same time as the Russian billionaire Alexandre Lebedev was finalizing the acquisition of the British paper The Independent, France-Soir was relaunched with great fanfare and money from another oligarch, Sergey Pugachyov.
It is not a coincidence, it is an emerging pattern. A terrible one. In which huge amounts of money of questionable origin will take over dying media.
These two papers are by no means comparable. The Independent remains a remarkable newspaper. France-Soir’s luster is long gone. A sorry procession of owners and editors, all promising the miraculous “nouvelle formule” (French term for redesign), were unable to revive the once popular evening daily. Each relaunch turned to be a new set of hospital robes for the terminally ill patient. Except this time: thanks to cash from Sergey Pugachyov – in fact his 25 years-old son Alexander – the robes are silk-made, the dressing gown is pashmina and everyone seems to want a piece it.
Ten days ago, I mingled among 300 others guests, sipping a glass of Champagne on the top of the Georges Pompidou Center a Renzo Piano-designed building at the heart of Paris. Fance-Soir was celebrating the latest in a series of rebirths. Take five or six, I lost count. And I don’t count on it. France-Soir is a living-dead paper. Fifty years ago, its daily print run was a million copies. It was down to 26,000 before the latest Russian defibrillation. Never mind, tonight, c’est la fête au village. The media crowd and its usual swarm of bottom-feeders are all here. TV moguls and politicians, former ministers are lining up to kiss the oligarch’s ring. As I asked a friend why in hell so many TV and radio hasbeens did show up, he reminded me that many had been enrolled to write snippets for the paper: “Would you give up €5000 or €10,000 a month to write the occasional 100 words?”.
As a matter or fact, I would. I did. A few days before the party, a well-connected media socialite called. “You known, I can introduce you to Pugachyov… They are still looking for an editor”. I replied, a bit tersely perhaps: “…Look: a) This paper is dead-meat; b) I’ve been contacted a year ago by a headhunter working for your guy and I already said no; c) I don’t do such things. I can’t work for an oligarch. That’s beyond my moral boundaries, even if I consider them pretty fluid”…
Nothing to be proud of. I simply enjoy the luxury of still being able to pick the people I want to work with. And I do not have a overwhelming amount of respect for the old farts, many of them fairly wealthy, queueing to kiss the young tsar’s ring for a consulting or journalistic fee.
Editorial Chinese Wall (Made in Russia)
Coincidence, take II. On the very morning the new France-Soir hit the street, president Sarkozy was awarding a République’s official distinction to the paper’s general manager, Christiane Vulvert. Bad timing from a PR standpoint, one that reveals an interesting connection between the French executive branch and the paper’s owners (see this excellent piece in Le Monde).
In a nutshell: First, Mrs Vulvert is a former general manager of the Centre National du Cinéma, the munificent French taxpayer subsidies pipeline dedicated to the French movie industry’s welfare. She’s part of the (French) nomenklatura. Second, the €20m Mr Pugachyov Sr. is pouring into France-Soir is small token compared to real deal. One of his key businesses (aside from real estate, pharmaceuticals or mining companies) is a modern shipyard that could be a perfect fit to built the four Mistral-class helicopter-carriers that France hopes to sell Russia. Nothing related of course. Even though, according to Le Monde, the “Dossier France-Soir” is followed by a close Sarkozy advisor (his press secretary was at the launch party). Very unlikely to see France-Soir becoming a strong critic of the French government.
These complicated circumvolutions actually buy very little influence. France-Soir version 6.0 or 7.0 remains a crappy paper. The cost of the Centre Pompidou party would have been better invested in a nice design, to say nothing of the editorial team. Two days after the relaunch, the paper published a supposed exclusive of a French pop star bathing in Saint-Barth. An unbroken chain of sloppy writing, editing and fact-checking led to the publication of a four year-old photograph; the journalistic environment was so lightweight that nobody knew how or cared enough to double-check the picture.
Instead of the half-million circulation its promoters tout, even with the editorial breadth and depth provided by former TV stars, France-Soir, will soon be back to a a tenth of that. More