Alliance Presse: balancing economic and environmental success in the French press
Because it’s seen as performing a vital role for democracy, France’s ‘information press’ has special rights – lighter taxes, low tariffs for postal distribution, guaranteed space in newsstands and direct funding from the state.
But, as ever, those rights come with responsibilities – and right now, the organisation that represents some 300 publishers across the country – is working out how to tackle those relating to environmental sustainability.
Pierre Petillault is the director general of the Alliance de la Presse d’Information Générale. He explains that the press in France has for a number of years been obliged to support an ‘eco-contribution system’ to help mitigate its paper waste.
“Basically you have, as an industry, to fund the recycling of your waste,” Petillault explains. “And for a newspaper, it’s paper. We have to fund a specific company, it’s more or less an association working as a company, which organises the recycling of papers in cities.
“And, also, we have to help the public become more conscious of the necessity of recycling.”
The Alliance Presse membership funds CITEO with upwards of €22 million per year, mainly via advertisements about recycling.
“We run their ads to the public saying, ‘you’ve got to recycle paper. Be careful, you’ve got to put it in the yellow bin’ and these kinds of things. Some of the messages are very general. Some of them are really focussed on recycling paper.
“We have a lot of other specific legislative obligations and, among them, we have to use recycled paper, at different levels, depending on the kind of publication. For instance, magazines can’t use the same amount of recycled paper as we do with a daily newspaper.
“We have to stop using plastic covers, beginning in 2022, stop using mineral inks beginning in 2023 and we also have to gradually raise the rates of recycled paper.”
In March 2021, the organisation Petillault leads made a new, four-point commitment to ‘ecological transition’, particularly related to advertising.
This has been spurred on by the wide-ranging environmental bill going through the French parliament, which contains several clauses designed to limit the harmful effects of this part of the media industry.
“The commitments we’ve made are really focused on advertising because that’s a debate right now in France. There is a strong current advocating for forbidding some industries from advertising, namely cars, airlines, this kind of thing.
“I remember the discussions we had with French policymakers and we told them, ‘you can suppress advertising, but you won’t suppress the need for a car, for instance. And they said ‘French don’t need a car’. And we answered ‘even outside Paris?’. So they said, ‘oh, yeah, okay, outside Paris… maybe’.
“So the fact that you don’t need a car, you don’t need advertising, you don’t need anything, that’s a view that is detached from reality. We’re taking things by the wrong end, advertising is at the end of the chain. You can suppress advertising, but people will need cars. The point is to give them cars that do not pollute.
“But in France this idea is quite popular,” he adds, “banning some adverts, some industries from advertising.”
Of course for publishers, advertising represents a significant proportion of revenues – an average of 35 percent across the Alliance Presse membership – he explains.
“So of course, publishers are not really okay with this. Some of them, the smallest ones, heavily rely on advertising – and especially car advertising – to fund themselves.
“They’re already, frankly speaking, in bad shape economically. In the last 10 years, advertising revenues were cut by half for newspapers, which is not the case for TV or radio. And so forbidding even more advertising, is very, very, very worrying for some of them.
“So what we’re trying to do is to make it understood that, ‘OK, advertising is maybe not the best thing in the world, but it’s absolutely necessary to fund newspapers’.
“We never saw newspapers having a functioning business model without advertising.”
Petillault, inevitably, relates some of these issues back to social media giants.
“I see everywhere people saying, ‘you don’t need advertising, that’s not for you, rely on subscriptions. That’s good money, online subscriptions’.
“Actually, there is an agenda behind this, which is ‘let’s keep all the advertising money for Google and Facebook’. We have these big platforms trying to, let’s say, push us out of online advertising, and trying and succeeding in getting all the value.
“We’re very happy to sell online subscriptions, but we sell it at a rate that is three times less than in the paper world and, yet, the journalist that wrote the article is paid the same. So the cost is the same, but the revenue is not the same. And so we can’t afford to get rid of advertising right now. Really not.”
Making the transition
As part of its plan, the Alliance Presse has committed to reviewing ads for their environmental credentials, quantifying its membership’s environmental coverage, training advertising execs on this and supporting those who take the environment seriously, particularly through an award with publicity prizes.
“We are already self-regulating advertising, with the support of the AACC, a professional association for media advertisement, advertising agencies and so on, which has been self-regulating advertisements for at least a decade.
“And so we will look at every ad before publication and, if needed, tell the AACC to check what is said in the ads regarding environmental issues. That means not using environmental arguments if they’re not true or not justified. And on the other end, not running ads that are clearly, let’s say, ‘anti-environment’.
“There is also a commitment to train people about advertising, press and the environment, and this is targeted to advertising professionals. We are working with the ACPM, which is a certification agency for press and media in France, to include in our Tomorrow’s Press programme a specific module for press and the environment.
Perhaps the most challenging of the four activities is designed to help the press prove its worth here – putting meaningful number on its environmental reporting – and it’s perhaps a perverse result of the journalism done here that French people are concerned about the impact of advertising.
“Showing that we need this money to live and to carry on is easy, but showing that we bring a valuable contribution to the public debate is not so easy,” Petillault acknowledges. “And that’s what we’re trying to do.
“We want to be able to say ‘okay, we know that it’s several hundreds of articles about environmental issues per day’. So we’re trying to get a number and then to use that number, to show the value we bring.
“Newspapers are one of the main channels to communicate and to influence the public on environmental issues and to be realistic, in the past decade, most of this work was done, especially, by the information press.
“We contributed a lot to raise these issues. And now we have these policymakers turning to us and saying, ‘okay, you won’t be able to do advertising for cars anymore and we say, ‘okay, let’s regulate car selling if this is a problem, but not advertising. This makes no sense’.
“So what we want to show is that we can be virtuous on advertising, even for polluting products, and that we try to be objective about what we bring in terms of environmental consciousness.”
The Alliance has also created a corporate social responsibility working group so it can understand how publishers are already doing in this area, including looking at the industry’s carbon footprint. The former telecoms executive says some of them are very advanced, but some are not at all, which is why they aren’t currently going to be tackling digital.
“First of all, we don’t generate value through smartphones or Wi-Fi themselves,” he explains. “Some of our newspapers are very digitalised, but that’s the case of usually the big national newspapers, for instance, Le Monde has most of its subscribers through digital right now.
“But that’s absolutely not the case with most of our members – the smallest newspapers, especially the more than 200 regional weekly newspapers – some of them have almost no digital footprint. Our economy is still mainly based on paper.
“From this group, we will share what is doable by the majority of them and one of the work streams we have is the environmental footprint. But we are at the beginning.”
Pierre Petillault, Director General at Alliance de la Presse d’Information Générale