SPIEGEL ONLINE Interview with Le Monde Boss Eric Fottorino: 'It's a Matter of Survival'

For the first time in 60 years, France's paper of record Le Monde is not appearing, because staff are striking over plans to axe 130 jobs. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Eric Fottorino, chief executive of the Le Monde group, defends his radical savings plan.

  Le Monde  director Eric Fottorino: "There are no magic solutions."
AFP

Le Monde director Eric Fottorino: "There are no magic solutions."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: A nightmare for France's intellectuals: Because of a strike, Le Monde, the French newspaper of record, will not appear -- for the first time since 1944 -- in Paris this afternoon and across the whole country tomorrow. Why?

Fottorino: The reason is the modernization plan that I presented to staff last week, which among other things calls for 130 jobs to be cut -- two-thirds of them in editorial and one-third in administration. Some of the staff will go voluntarily; some of them will be made redundant. That leads to emotions and opposition. But our situation is that of a doctor: Sometimes, like during an operation, you have to sacrifice a limb to save a life.

SPIEGEL ONLINE : France's daily newspapers are suffering from falling sales and shrinking advertising revenue. Le Monde is in trouble, with a loss of around €20 million in 2007 and €150 million in debt. How do you see the future of the publishing company?

Fottorino: All the same, thanks to the sale of the title Midi Libre (in Montpellier) we were able to considerably reduce the burden of debt for 2008. Le Monde does not want to be a mass circulation newspaper, but with the modernization plan we want to secure breathing space for new investments. We want to organize the editorial department more efficiently and produce a quality newspaper, with carefully selected reports and commentary, which is coordinated with the content on our very successful Web site.

SPIEGEL ONLINE : If one out of four journalists has to go, will it be possible to retain the standard of journalism you are hoping for?

Fottorino: I am familiar with people's concerns: in 1995 we produced 40 pages with 220 editorial staff. Today we produce around 30 pages with 150 staff. We have a smaller team, but it is composed entirely of journalists who are highly specialized in politics, economics or culture.

SPIEGEL ONLINE : Can Le Monde survive in the long term without new, well-funded shareholders?

Fottorino: Certainly, an increase in our resources is necessary, not so much to break even, which we want to do within two years, but to invest further -- for example, to develop our Internet presence or modernize our printing presses.

SPIEGEL ONLINE : The defense and publishing company Lagardère and the Spanish media group Prisa are both clamouring to acquire part of the paper: Does this threaten Le Monde's independence?

Fottorino: Even with a different shareholder structure, we will never allow another owner to acquire a majority of the company or to stand up and say: 'I am Le Monde.' No, Le Monde's (staff-owned) Society of Editors will in the future still hold over 50 percent of the shares.

SPIEGEL ONLINE : In January you were celebrated as a savior. Now some of the workforce has labelled you the liquidator.

Fottorino: I am neither one nor the other. I've spent my whole career here at Le Monde -- I've been a reporter, editorialist, editor-in-chief. My only concern for the next six years, during which I will be in charge, is the survival of the newspaper. There are no magic solutions, no hidden reserves. Le Monde's existence is not anchored in France's constitution. It's a company and as such mortal.

Interview conducted by Stefan Simons

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