Fury at plan to turn French daily into 'social network'

PARIS (AFP) - Journalists at France's third-biggest national newspaper, Liberation, are reacting with fury at a surprise plan by the owners to try to turn around the struggling daily by transforming it into a "social network".

The owners also want to convert the multi-million-euro building currently rented by the newsroom in central Paris into an all-day cultural centre featuring a cafe, TV studio and business area to help start-ups.

Outraged Liberation journalists vented their opposition to the plan on the cover of the weekend edition, which had the frontpage headline: "We are a newspaper, not a restaurant, not a social network, not a cultural space, not a TV studio, not a bar, not a start-up incubator."

The staff voted on Sunday not to repeat a 24-hour strike they staged Thursday upon learning of what the owners had in mind. Instead they vowed to fight against the "illegal" project in their newspaper's pages.

Started by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in 1973 as a leftwing title, Liberation has been a mainstay on newsstands - especially in left-leaning Paris - with its emphasis on photos and sometimes militant stances.

But it has long trailed the more prestigious Le Monde and Le Figaro dailies, and, with a circulation of just 100,000, it has been a loss-making enterprise for shareholders.

The press in France - as in many other Western countries - is suffering as the Internet eats into readership and advertising, and state subsidies supporting it are often inadequate.

In 2013, Liberation lost more than a million euros (S$1.7 million) as sales plummeted 15 percent - the biggest slide among French newspapers.

The three main owners of Liberation, businessman Edouard de Rothschild (of the famed banking family), real estate developer Bruno Ledoux, and the Italian wealth management group Ersel, say they hope their "innovative" plan will turn around its fortunes.

- 'Only viable solution' - ==========================

"Our project is the only viable solution for Liberation," Mr Ledoux told AFP on Saturday.

He vowed the newspaper would remain "at the heart of the system" in the restructuring, "but will no longer be the system itself".

He criticised what he said was a "symptomatic" reflex to reject innovation among the paper's journalists, and warned: "If the staff refuse, Liberation won't have a future. What's at stake is its death."

The paper's staff, though, are sceptical of Ledoux's claims, pointing out that he is the owner of the building rented by Liberation, and therefore in a position to make millions if he turfs the daily out after making it bankrupt.

They are also wary of Ledoux's intentions after media leaked an e-mail of his to other shareholders in which he called the paper's staff "narrow-minded" and said he wanted to "get the jump on them, a jolt, where everything is laid out, including the plan for the building".

In their weekend editorial, the Liberation newsroom said it was "stupefied" by the owners' plan.

"It doesn't offer any serious perspective for the future of the newspaper that you are holding. If it goes ahead, Liberation will just become a brand.

The weeks ahead are going to be difficult, but we remain united and determined."

The unions said several pages of Monday's edition would be given over to the row, and the campaign would continue in the days ahead.

"The newspaper is our weapon," said one of its journalists who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We might also do an investigation into our shareholder Bruno Ledoux."