Newspapers try to build readership by giving free subscriptions to the kids

French films usually include at least one scene of serious-looking, chain-smoking café patrons reading the newspaper. But that shot is make-believe: The newspaper industry, as troubled as it is in the U.S., is dying in the land of Sartre and Voltaire, where the per-capita circulation is about half that of papers in Germany and Britain, according to The New York Times.

With readership falling off a cliff, the government is trying to do something about it. The plan: Starting Friday, some 200,000 citizens between 18 and 24 can get a one-year free subscription to a newspaper of their choice.
The rescue-the-press project is expected to cost €15 million ($22.2 million) over three years, according to Agence France Presse. "The habit of reading [newspapers], if it's not developed at an early age, is not acquired later in life," said Frédéric Mitterrand, minister of culture and communications. "That's why capturing young readers is a key goal for the economic survival of the press overall."

The program lets eligible citizens visit the site Mon Journal Offert ("My Free Newspaper") and choose one of 59 dailies -- including, oddly, the International Herald Tribune, a New York Times Co. (NYT) paper published in English. Subscribers will receive the newspapers once a week -- an system chosen over providing a daily every day for less than a year, so young readers could get more accustomed to reading a paper.

Like their U.S. counterparts, French youth are reading fewer and fewer print publications. In 1997, some 70 percent of French youth occasionally read a daily newspaper, according to a ministry of culture study; by 2008, such occasional readers had fallen to 58 percent, Agence France Presse reports.

"In the digital age, the young are major consumers of media, but they normally skip an important part of the press, one that helps citizens forge their opinions and one that contributes to a critical understanding of current events," Mitterand said.

France's journalists seem pleased with the government's move. It's a "good way to rekindle interest in the daily press on a large scale since the project affects national, regional and local dailies," Denis Bouchez, the director of France's union representing national daily newspaper staffs, said according to Agence France Presse.

But will it work? Regional daily Ouest-France, based in the northwestern city of Rennes, took part in a pilot program in 2006 -- and gives the plan a big "oui." Of 76,000 youths who got free subscriptions to Ouest-France in 2006, some 65 percent were reading it at least once a week by the end of the yearlong trial, and another 12 percent sprang for paid subscriptions, Agence France Presse reports.

Some French youths remain skeptical: Maxime Louis, 16, a student in the western town of Poitiers, is too young to take advantage of the offer but would be unlikely to do so, he says. "I like the Internet. You can go on when you want and select the articles you want to read," he says. That's exactly what French leaders are afraid of.

Louis does read a hard-copy publication called L'actu, a current events paper, for people 14 and older. And he allows that "the fact that the government program is free will help certain people," he says.

Would a newspaper bailout of this sort fly in the U.S.? Average daily circulation at 379 U.S. newspapers fell 10.6 percent between April and September from a year earlier. President Obama has expressed sympathy for the U.S. papers' plight -- but with automakers, banks, and other industries seeking help, the media is far from the top of the list.

Martha Steffens, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, who has worked extensively with foreign press, says that U.S. newspapers commonly use "sampling" -- free subscriptions for a limited time -- to get readers hooked. "I see no reason why it won't work here," she says of France's program.

But U.S. papers need to prove they're relevant and useful, even if that means giving their product away, she says. "If young people don't find any content of interest, it will be resented, and the paper will be seen as wasteful in a world trying to go green," she says. The New York Times will likely be watching circulation figures at Le Monde as the program gets into gear.

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