By: Aralynn Abare McMane
Infomatin, the newest Paris daily, tries to tempt readers
with a colorful, compact package and a low, low price sp.
WHEN THEY PUT you on hold on France’s latest national paper, Infomatin, you get the gist of what sets it apart.
“Your daily paper . . . it’s still the same . . . gray . . . no color,” the recording intones.
Then the voice gets perky.
“Now, that’s all over! Here’s Infomatin, the daily paper that’s changing your day. It’s all information and only information in a much more practical format. And all in color. Infomatin, it’s three francs, yes, only three francs, every morning.”
Barely six months old and half the price of some of its competitors, Infomatin is the first new Paris paper in two decades to last more than a few weeks. Its survival remains far from certain, but in its content, format and pricing it has clearly brought something new to the French newspaper market.
“It’s gotten a better reception than many expected,” said John Vinocur, executive editor of the Paris-based and U.S.-owned International Herald Tribune. “In a country that is not newspaper-devouring or newspaper-addicted, what no one dares call a success actually resembles one.”
France has one of Western Europe’s weakest newspaper markets even as it has one of the worlds elite newspapers, Le Monde. France’s per-capita newspaper readership ranks thirteenth in the region, just behind Belgium’s and ahead of Italy’s. Nine out of 10 French adults read no national paper; only one half read any daily at all.
Infomatin offers odd content for a national paper. It carries little of the kind of partisan commentary and unlabeled analysis that has long permeated Paris papers, such as Le Monde, Le Figaro and Liberation, that circulate nationally.
Only within the past few weeks has a daily column by a staff member appeared. Otherwise, the limited commentary has taken the form of brief, unsigned and labeled editorial sidebars, an editorial panel cartoon and a solitary 250-word column by a different guest author each day.
Editor Mark J?z?gabel said that while Infomatin aims to be critical, it remains independent and has no ideological bent.
“We tried to make that very clear from the start,” he said. “For example, it was the first-day editorial that declared, ‘Here we are and here’s what political stance we take.’ “
Infomatin also looks different. It is only an inch taller and wider than this copy of E&P. All of its 24 highly formatted pages have full color. Every square centimeter is programmed for a certain category of visual content or text. Page two features a daily photo essay. There’s a “graphique du jour” on page six.
Journalists write stories to an exact, and relatively short, character count directly into the space allotted on an electronic version of the layout. Longer stories appear ? most notably a two-page special report each day ? but the overall impression is a speedy read.
“I tested my designs by standing up to see how it would work for someone riding to work on the subway,” recalls Infomatin’s designer, Albert-Gaston Riou.
The price is also unorthodox. Until 20 years ago, the average daily paper cost somewhere between the prices of a postage stamp and a loaf of bread. Now, the average Paris newspaper costs as much as twice the price of those things. At three francs (About 55?), Infomatin costs a tad more than the stamp but less than either bread or any of its competitors.
“Of course, a lower price alone won’t attract a reader,” said co-founder Alain Schott, “but a high price contributes to discouraging that reader.”
French journalist Bruno Pfeiffer spent a day a week for four months in the Infomatin newsroom doing research for a study of the paper’s evolution. While not an unreserved fan of the paper, he fondly recalls his first look at it.
“I knew it was truly something modern: colorful, compact and inexpensive,” he said.
That reaction was exactly what the paper’s founders wanted from the public, too.
Infomatin began to take shape in 1991 when four collectors of old newspapers ? none of whom worked in newsrooms but all of whom worked near them ? started chatting about the problems of the modern French press.
“As do many things in France, it all started over a dinner,” recalls Schott.
Schott, 34, had worked in ad agencies and was research director for a company that sold ad space for several newspapers.
Alain Carlier, 45, had been in direct marketing at Le Monde; Patrick Dutheil, 40, sold advertising space for several papers, and Phillippe Robinet, 31, was director of media studies at the BVA polling company.
After that dinner, the foursome created a research group, le Centre d’Observation des Medias, to explore the idea of a new paper.
More than two years later ? and after seven studies of current and potential readers ? they developed the formula: a compact, comprehensive, colorful and affordable five-day paper with advertising limited to about 13% of total space.
They wanted a minimum of 100,000 readers who were mostly young, urban, active, pressed for time, and probably riding a bus or train to work.
The founders financed the effort with only 250,000 francs ($45,000) and some creative deal-making that left them with controlling interest.
Le Monde agreed to lend them office space and use of its new printing presses, which allowed that paper more practice with color. The Swedish press group Marieberg furnished 25 million francs ($4.5 million) in loan guarantees.
“Our ambition is to conquer a person who has turned away from daily papers or who has never found one they liked,” Robinet told the trade magazine l’Echo de la Presse soon after Infomatin’s January 10 launch. “Two segments of people offer untapped potential as readers of daily papers: women and young people.”
What the paper has actually attracted, so far, is an average reader who is younger (average age 37, with four-fifths under 50) and more likely to be female (50%)than readers of the other dailies.
It has also attracted mixed reviews.
The shortness of most stories coupled with a lack of interpretation or strong political stance bothers some observers, while others ? and sometimes those same critics ? give the paper points for offering something to a stale market.
“If I had to stick my neck out, I’d say it was a good thing for French newspapers because it’s creating a new breed of newspaper readers,” said Patrice Schneider, who directs the newspaper marketing bureau of FIEJ, the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers based in Paris. “Also, it’s creating a sort of dynamic within the newspaper industry, getting them to say, ‘Well, you’re right, we should really look at the way we design our things, serve our readers and so forth.'”
Schneider worries, though, about what could happen if existing newspapers trivialize themselves as they seek more readers or profits.
“That’s dangerous because when you touch a newspaper you touch society,” he said.
Remy Rieffel, head of the Institut Francais de la Presse, also has a divided opinion. He thinks the paper is well-done, fits a niche and has served to get things moving in the French press, but he finds it frustrating to read. “It generally gives only information in its raw form, without much commentary or reflection, which is going to disappoint anyone looking for something deeper,” he said.
Putting it more bluntly, Ignacio Ramonet, director of Le Monde Diplomatique, said on a radio show soon after Infomatin appeared, “It’s a newspaper without journalists.”
Some foreign correspondents in town find the paper a sort of informational oasis.
“We really like it as American journalists,” said a correspondent whose organization forbids him from being quoted by name. “It’s not comprehensive, but we think its great because it’s just so much easier to get through. It’s straightforward and clear and it doesn’t have a political slant, a certain constant way of approaching French politics.”
Sharon Waxman, who writes out of Paris for the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, likes the way the paper makes its appeal to young people.
“You get serious news that seems to be seriously reported and presented in an interesting and lively way,” she said. “It’s not just whipped cream sort of news that would appeal to kids.”
Its audience does present Infomatin with some problems.
Readers turned out to be less urban than expected with only one in four living in the Paris area. This means delivery becomes much more complicated and expensive outside Paris. School vacations, when many of the French travel, have particularly hurt sales.
The industry’s collective distribution organization has particular trouble delivering to newsstands in the southwest of France, one of the most popular summer vacation spots. For national newspapers, home delivery is extremely rare, and, especially outside Paris, subscribers get their copies by mail ? and often a day late, according to a 1992 report by the Centre de Formation et de Perfectionnement des Journalistes (Center for the Training and Advancement of Journalists). Schott said a deal was in progress to arrange delivery through regional press resources.
Also, Infomatin doesn’t have enough readers. Estimated street sales have gone from an average 270,000 the first week to well below the original 100,000 break-even point.
Schott said in mid-June that they were at around 80,000. Others put estimates at even less. Meanwhile, the unexpected delivery costs have raised the paper’s break-even circulation to 145,000 copies.
Some of the financial pressure has eased with the involvement of Andr? Rousselet.
Ten years ago, Rousselet founded what became France’s most prosperous private television enterprise, the pay-station Canal Plus. He’s expected to take over controlling interest in Infomatin in the next few months, investing a sum that media reports put at 23-30 million francs ($4.1 to $5.4 million) but which Schott said will probably be even more.
Rousselet is an important wild card for Infomatin, said Schneider of FIEJ. “He seems to be a champion for these kinds of causes,” he said. “Years ago people said that Canal Plus wouldn’t last more than a few months. Now it’s a clear success and he’s played a big part in that.”
No matter what else happens, Infomatin has already succeeded in jostling the newspaper market.
Five days before Infomatin’s first issue, Le Parisien, which concentrates on the city and costs 4.5 francs, launched a national edition called Aujourd’hui priced at 3.5 francs.
Also, at least one clone has appeared. On May 16, Paris 24:00 was launched with a full-color, magazine-sized format and a 3-franc price. The primary difference came in base colors (black and orange instead of blue) and tone (with its editor promising “impertinence”).
By May 31, however, Paris 24:00 was dead. (See related story, page 11).
Infomatin itself is considering changes. Ideas under discussion include upping the Friday paper to 32 pages to expand the leisure and practical information sections and allow more advertising, or perhaps adding a Saturday edition to help keep readers in the habit of looking at it.
The paper has also begun moving away from being “all information and only information.”
“We have a little more analysis and commentary now,” J?z?gabel said, “because we found the readers didn’t see the short, separate commentaries we used to run as a real assessment of the news.”
Franz-Olivier Giesbert, editor of Le Figaro, has noticed. “The writing is better, and it now has a real tone: a little bit aggressive, a little bit malicious,” he said. “What started out as simply a design, a layout, has become a real newspaper.”
?( McMane, a Pris-based journalist and technology specialist, directs Paris Reporting Project, a study-abroad program sponsored by the University of South Carolina and Indiana University) [Caption]
DATE: Sat 15-Oct-1994
PUBLICATION: Editor & Publisher
SUBJECT: New Rench Recipe
AUTHOR: Editorial Staff
LOCATION: Page 7
correction new french recipe infomatin mark jezegabel
Correction p. 7
In “A New French Recipe,” E&P, July 9, p. 10, part of a sentence was dropped from the typeset copy.
The full quotation by Infomatin editor Mark J?z?gabel should have read: “For example, it was the first time in France that a new paper appeared without a first-day editorial that declared, ‘Here we are and here’s what political stance we take.'”