RSF investigation: advertisers pulling out of troubled French Sunday

French billionaire businessman Vincent Bolloré’s upcoming takeover of the French Sunday newspaper Journal du Dimanche (JDD) has already caused it to lose traditional advertisers, who are concerned about their image. The newspaper’s “business plan” has been dealt a blow.

Although Arnaud Lagardère, the head of Lagardère News, the newspaper’s current owner,  described the appointment of a new editor ahead of the takeover as “a business decision,” not an “ideological” one, JDD’s traditional advertisers have begun pulling out. As well as triggering the biggest strike in the history of French Sunday papers, the decision to appoint Geoffroy Lejeune, the former editor of the far-right magazine Valeurs actuelles, as JDD’s new editor, despite the opposition of all of its journalists, is in the process of causing heavy financial losses. This emblematic French newspaper’s survival will be on the line in the coming months.

In a memo on 28 June that RSF has seen, Publicis Media, a very influential French ad agency that is a competitor of the Bolloré-owned Havas agency and handles the media budget of LVMH (a shareholder in the Lagardère group), Intermarché and the French postal service – all regular advertisers in JDD – advised its clients to follow “a precautionary principle” by suspending their plans to place ads in the paper. The memo expressed “reservations” about its future, “all the more so if the current editorial staff were to be dropped.”

A source within the Lagardère group said: “We sold advertisers the serious, reassuring and non-partisan nature of a newspaper that directly reaches executives and decision-makers. But this editorial promise has been broken and we have no reassuring information to communicate.” JDD’s main traditional advertisers were to be found in the banking, insurance, fashion, retail, culture and industrial sectors. Many of them now fear seeing their image associated with a publication that will be ideological. Who will follow the Bolloré version of JDD tomorrow? “It will be without us,” one advertiser has already told the newspaper. “For the moment we are suspending, but if this direction is confirmed, in two months we will pull out,” a fashion sector brand has warned.

“Given the prospect of a significant drop in advertising revenue, contributing to expected losses of several million euros by the end of the year, the business motives cited by Arnaud Lagardère as the reason for the choice of a new editor seem at best a very risky bet and at worst a clumsy attempt to defend a decision over which the shadow of Vincent Bolloré hovers. What we are witnessing is this newspaper being sacrificed on the altar of political and ideological considerations. New safeguards are urgently needed to protect editorial independence.

Arnaud Froger
Head of RSF’s investigation desk

“The damage assessment changes every week and we’re flying without instruments,” said a source responsible for financial matters at Lagardère News. As soon as the second issue did not appear (out of six that ultimately did not come out as a result of the strike), the drop in revenue and the lack of newsstand sales caused losses of more than a million euros, another Lagardère employee said. At the end of June, an internal assessment carried out after the announcement of Geoffroy Lejeune’s appointment forecast a 60% drop in advertising revenue for 2023. “In any case, we will be very far from the initial goal of 8 million euros in revenue, set at the start of the year,” another Lagardère source confirmed.

What with mistrust and threats to pull out, relations with the “major accounts” – the leading brands that buy the most advertising space in the newspaper – are going badly. If major advertisers pull out, as some are already suggesting they will, the shortfall in advertising revenue could amount to several million euros by the end of the year. The change in editorial line, which could be confirmed by the arrival of more journalists from Valeurs Actuelles, will be closely monitored.

At this rate, the newspaper’s 75th anniversary – which was to have been celebrated with a special edition entitled “the World in 2050” and an evening event on 10 September – is liable to resemble a funeral. “We have changed the world,” one journalist said. “The JDD as it existed is probably dead,” another added. The planned evening event and the hundreds of magnums of champagne have been cancelled. The special issue had been expected to generate a lot of advertising revenue. Instead, the losses are estimated at 150,000 euros.

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