PARIS -- The French state will help provide free newspaper subscriptions to teenagers for their 18th birthdays, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Friday. But the bigger gift is for France's ailing print media.
Sarkozy also announced a ninefold rise in the state's support for newspaper deliveries and a doubling of its annual print advertising outlay amid a swelling industry crisis.
Sarkozy argued in a speech to publishers that the measures are needed because the global financial crisis has compounded woes for a sector already suffering from falling ad revenues and subscriptions.
Sarkozy said it is legitimate for the state to consider the print media's economic situation.
"It is indeed its responsibility ... to make sure an independent, free and pluralistic press exists," he said.
This is sensitive territory for Sarkozy, who has been accused of cozying up to media moguls and exerting influence over them. He is also no stranger to heavy criticism in the country's often opinionated newspapers.
In measures to take effect next month, the state will increase its annual support for newspaper and magazine deliveries to 70 million euros ($90 million) from 8 million euros last year, and spend 20 million euros more a year for its advertisements in print publications. The state will also defer some fees the publications face.
One of Sarkozy's solutions to help the industry is a pilot program that will give teenagers celebrating their 18th birthday a free, year-long subscription to any general news daily of their choice. The publisher is to give the newspapers away, while the state pays for the deliveries.
That initiative appears designed to assuage industry fears that young readers don't share the same appetite for print media that their parents and grandparents have, denting current and future revenues.
"The habit of reading the press is learned very young," Sarkozy said, while insisting that the aid would only buy time for publishers to adapt to the new media landscape.
The initiative is designed to help the sector over three years "to modernize and invest in the print media sector in exchange for important structural reforms," he said. The measures largely came from recommendations in a three-month study into the industry's health that was released on Jan. 8. The study also recommends that newspapers restructure their finances and that journalists be better trained for multiple forms of media, including online.
"None of the proposed measures ... will be useful in the end if the profession doesn't meet its challenges," he said. "The industry has a future to reinvent.... Time is running out."