France was hit early by COVID-19 and adopted a very strict national lockdown in March and April 2020, with more limited measures in autumn, followed by a renewed national lockdown in April 2021. The main media impact was seen in rising TV and online news consumption, increased trust, and falling advertising revenues, but with some brands recruiting record numbers of digital subscribers.
In the first French lockdown, people stuck at home had few distractions other than their screens. Smartphone use rose, and TV news made a comeback with record viewing levels of four hours per day. Some channels extended their evening bulletins with government COVID-19 related announcements dominating coverage, often delivered in a very top-down manner. President Emmanuel Macron made several TV addresses – one seen live by almost 36 million viewers. Prime Minister Jean Castex even showed up on Twitch, in an attempt to reach younger audiences.
Traffic to most news websites increased as a result of the pandemic – at least for a time. The increase was particularly pronounced for regional or local newspapers online which reached 21% weekly.1 COVID-19 restored to some extent the relevance of local news, especially for news about developments in nearby hospitals, shops, schools, and the neighbourhood generally. France’s best-selling regional paper, Ouest France, opened up two months’ free access to its online content for people registering with an email address.
But COVID-19 also generated serious financial pressures. The 2020 advertising revenues fell from 2019 by 11% for TV, 13% for radio, and 24% for the press.2 The government estimated the overall 2020 pandemic loss for the press sector at 16% of turnover, or €1.9bn. In August 2020, the government added to existing support schemes with a new subsidy package of €483m awarded over two years to make up for COVID-19 related losses and aid the move to digital.
The year 2020 also brought some good news from within the industry. Many publishers reported unprecedented increases in digital subscribers. Le Monde now has a record 360,000 digital subscribers (plus 100,000 print only), with a combined target of 1m by 2025. Le Figaro reported 205,000 digital subscribers, a 45% increase on 2019, with subscriptions growing at three times their usual rate in March–April 2020. Digital-born Mediapart, also reported that 2020 had delivered its strongest annual growth in its 13 years of existence, resulting in a total of 218,000 paying subscribers.
Some publishers should also benefit from a new deal with Google, following a competition authority decision requiring negotiations in April 2020.3 Almost a year later Reuters News4 reported some financial details of agreements between Google and a group of 121 national and local French publishers to pay $22m p.a. over three years to end their long-running copyright dispute, and to feature these publishers’ content in Google Showcase. Payments are confidential and seem to be calculated on an individual basis, but Reuters reported them as ranging from about $1.3m for Le Monde to smaller fees for regional papers. Leading national dailies such as Le Monde, Libération, and Le Figaro were also reported to have obtained a further $3.6m p.a. each, on top of the fee in the agreement, for selling subscriptions through Google. Publishers not included in these deals have complained, while none of the parties has confirmed any of these figures.
A proposed new security bill revived tensions between journalists, police, and the government. Article 24 of the bill created a new offence of distributing images that might ‘harm the physical or mental integrity’ of police officers, with penalties of up to a year in prison or a €45,000 fine. Media organisations protested, seeing this as an attack on press freedom. At the same time a video of a police assault on a black man in Paris released by the digital-born Loopsider, was viewed more than 15 million times and fuelled criticism of the bill. After amendments, publication will now be allowed if there is no ‘obvious intent’ to harm the police officers.
This was also the year when #MeToo took off in France, with an increased focus on misogyny and sexual harassment in the workplace, including politics and the media. Women have been speaking out and new feminist media titles have been launched, including newsletters such ‘Les Glorieuses’ or ‘Women who do stuff’, and podcasts like ‘Les Couilles sur la Table’ or ‘La Poudre’.
Executive Dean, Science Po Journalism School
Broadcast brands benefited online and offline from growth in TV news. Increased use of smartphones reflects interest in news updates during the pandemic. Facebook remains the top social media network for news but use declined for the second year.
Pay for online news
Listen to podcast in the last month
Share news via social, messaging or email
Trust in news overall
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Trust in news on social media
Overall trust in news increased by seven percentage points but remains low by international standards. Regional/ local newspapers are most trusted, followed by the public service brands (France TV and France Info). Le Monde is the most trusted national newspaper, while the very popular 24-hour news channel BFM TV has almost equal levels of distrust and trust (35% and 42%).
1 The 21% figure is the combined reach of Ouest France online and other regional or local newspapers online while removing the overlap between people consuming more than one local brand.