We live in a golden age of concentrated power, money and influence, and there’s nothing like a benevolent billionaire buying a struggling newspaper to combine all three.

Like a glitzy football team or prize racehorse, a media brand brings prestige, a public soap-box and political sway – and the whiff of a business opportunity as digital subscriptions start to offset the decline of print advertising. Driven by the belief that media platforms can tilt the balance of power away from President Donald Trump’s angry tweets, or from Mark Zuckerberg’s social-media empire, moguls have reason to keep buying. The risk is that good intentions give way as the realities of trying to make a success of a journalism business take hold.

The latest newspaper to get attention from a billionaire is France’s Le Monde, whose dense text and evening publication make it the antithesis of millennial tastes – and with a circulation of about 300,000 it’s not exactly a mass-market read. Czech investor Daniel Kretinsky has made a very discreet first knock at the door, buying slightly less than half of Lazard banker Matthieu Pigasse’s 27-percent stake in the Le Monde Group, a holding reportedly valued at 34 million euros ($38.6 million).

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Another French newspaper, Liberation, has reported that Pigasse’s initial plan was to sell the whole stake. That has raised hackles internally and sparked fears at the Elysee Palace about the foreign ownership of domestic media.

There are valid questions to ask when an aspiring media baron arrives on the scene. For every wealthy lifeline that works out, such as Jeff Bezos’s hands-off approach at the Washington Post, there are others that don’t. Sam Zell’s debt-fueled takeover of Tribune Co. drove it into bankruptcy, and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’s attempted turnaround of the New Republic was a failure.

Kretinsky already owns a bunch of media brands in his homeland and in France, including titles purchased from French media magnate Arnaud Lagardere. But his main business is energy, via power utility EPH. Influence, especially in a country that’s overhauling its state energy portfolio, might be the goal.

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Still, if Kretinsky has arrived on the scene, it is because Pigasse has sold his shares. That in turn begs the question as to why the banker, who invested in Le Monde in 2010 alongside telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel and the now deceased Pierre Berge, is selling at all, given the deep pockets of his fellow investor. Maybe he just doesn’t like the business any more. France’s limits on press ownership, the media’s reliance on state subsidies, and creaking newspaper retail networks leave the industry in constant need of funds.

The Czech tycoon is publicly making the right noises. In fluent French, he has talked up the need for a free press to defend liberal democracy against populism, and as a counterweight to the excesses of Silicon Valley’s social networks. He describes himself as pro-European, and unconnected to Vladimir Putin’s circle of power. Making a profit is not the aim, he says, which is probably just as well.

But access to Le Monde’s masthead, combined with an increasingly online business model, might hold its own attractions. The newspaper’s digital subscriber base increased by 20 percent in 2018, to 180,000, and online sales are outpacing print. If traditional media can grab back some of the territory lost to the social networks, while retaining political influence and avoiding losing money, it will justify this new wave of wannabe Citizen Kanes.

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To contact the author of this story: Lionel Laurent at llaurent2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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