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French government to give newspaper subscriptions for 18th birthdays

French President Nicolas Sarkozy gestures during his speech on the  French press media in Paris on Friday. Sarkozy has laid out new state  aid for France's troubled print media, like paying for deliveries of  newspapers and magazines and a giveaway to 18-year olds of a  subscription of their choice.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy gestures during his speech on the French press media in Paris on Friday. Sarkozy has laid out new state aid for France's troubled print media, like paying for deliveries of newspapers and magazines and a giveaway to 18-year olds of a subscription of their choice.

PARIS – The French state is to 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.

In a speech to industry leaders, Sarkozy said it was 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 euro70 million ($90 million) from euro8 million last year, and spend euro20 million 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, yearlong 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 appeared 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 he announced Friday 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.”

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