08 April 2009

Small-town newspapers?

We think about cultural differences having to do with cheek-kissing and hand-shaking, attitudes toward sex and marriage, or differences in diet, table manners, and food preferences.

But there are so many other cultural differences. Yesterday Linda H. left a comment on the blog asking about coverage of the Michelle and Barack Obama's European tour in small-town newspapers in France. In a comment in response, I said I don't really read the small-town papers.

Then, this afternoon, out walking in the vineyard with Callie (the weather was nice, as you can see from the pictures in this post), I realized this question about newspapers had pointed up another cultural difference.

There are no small-town newspapers in France! There are the national papers: Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération, and Humanité, among others. And then there are regional papers: Ouest-France, La Nouvelle République, Nice-Matin, L'Est Républicain, La Dépêche du Midi, La Provence, and so on.

Our regional paper here in the Touraine is La Nouvelle République. It's published in Tours, the area's largest city. And local editions are part of the publication strategy. There's one for our département, the Loir-et-Cher, and for other parts of the region. The local editions certainly have some local news in them. But you can't compare it to small-town papers in America.

For example: in eastern North Carolina, where I grew up, each small town has a newspaper. There's one published three times a week in Morehead City (pop. 8,000), a daily in New Bern (pop. 30,000), and another daily in Jacksonville (pop. 70,000). All these towns are within 40 miles of each other. There are a couple of weekly newspapers published in the area too.

That's without mentioning the newspapers published in larger North Carolina towns including Wilmington, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, Charlotte, and Winston-Salem. Of course, all these daily papers may be defunct before too many more months or years go by, what with the rise of the Internet and declines in advertising revenues these days.

Here in the Cher River valley, there's no local paper in our village, and no local paper in Saint-Aignan. There's no local paper in Montrichard, Contres, or even the (slightly) larger town of Romorantin (pop 20,000). There's no local paper in Blois (pop. 60,000), our administrative capital and by far the largest town in the département. The Nouvelle République is the only local paper around, with the exception of a couple of free advertising weeklies called Paru-Vendu and BIP 41.

There also aren't any local radio stations. Okay, yes, there is one radio station for the Loir-et-Cher département, but that's it. And in Tours there's Radio Bleue Touraine, one station in a chain of regional radio stations run by Radio France, the national service. Otherwise, we listen to French national radio stations from Paris, including FranceInter, RTL, Europe 1, RFM, Radio Nostalgie, FranceInfo, France Musique, France Culture, and many more.

There is now a local TV station in Tours. That's an innovation. It's the only one around here. The national FR3 TV network carries regional news.

France is a very centralized country. The head administrative officer of our département is appointed by the French president. Officials in Paris have a voice in nearly every local government decision — every little town or village does have its own mayor and municipal council, but their decision space is severely circumscribed. Along with that political centralization, the fact is that most media outlets are based in Paris and cover the whole country.

When you do read the local edition of the regional newspaper, it sometimes hard to figure out the details of what the articles are talking about. It's certainly not a question of "just the facts, ma'am, just the facts." The articles are like little prose poems, painting word pictures of local scenes. They can be interesting but hard to decipher. If you don't share the cultural assumptions and knowledge of the writers and editors, you can feel a little bit lost.

In my case, I often read and read and read without succeeding in figuring out what an article is really saying. It's not a question of language — it's a cultural thing. I've lived off and on in France for 40 years. Maybe non-Americans who try to read American newspapers have the same reaction when trying to figure out what the articles in them are all about.


  1. I am glad it's not just me who finishes an hour of reading la Nouvelle Republic feeling bemused...

  2. We have a weekly local newspaper which we've all GOT to read because everything is so badly advertised, no one knows what is going on.


  3. Hi Simon, in the LNR articles I often find sentences (or fragments) that seem to end in the middle of a thought or just trail off in a series of points de suspension.... I think it's up to the reader to supply the ending, and if you know the culture and local life well enough I suppose you can do that.

    NWbD, we don't have a local paper. We get a lot of advertising material in our weekly mail, and the village hall sends out a single-page newsletter three or four times a year. That's it, unless you go buy the Nouvelle République. Or look at it on-line.

  4. Ken: Likewise I struggle sometimes with the peculiar construction of sentences and paragraphs in LNR. I remember trying to translate an article about the town of La Roche Posay being held hostage by German troops after the D-Day landings (Operation Overlord). In the end I just translated some bits with what I knew from other sources to be the facts, as the tense in the article kept shifting and as you say, thoughts just trailed off.

  5. do you think the US is heading toward the french centralized government?? TARP etc etc!!!

  6. Dale, I think it's more likely now that France is headed toward being a state in a larger confederation or even federation called Europe. Paris will become the equivalent of a state capital.

  7. thats interesting - 1st the Euro and now a federation!!!

  8. I've sometimes wondered if American papers, which are in such trouble, might consider this as a business model. I guess it would be better than seeing them all fall down...

  9. Here in St. Louis, we used to have 2 full time papers, one that came out in the morning, and one that came out in the evening. We lost one of those about 10 years ago. We used to have a free weekly "suburban journal" that had local-interest stories tailored to the different parts of St. Louis City and County (like student athlete profiles, community dinners, and things like that), and that has gone to paid subscription, and will no-doubt soon be gone. Our remaining single major paper has just last week gone to a skinnier width, with less content, to save money, and folks who work there are being asked (forced) to take un-paid vacation time (about a month's worth) sometime in the year. Since I've lived in a major town for so many years now, I don't know if the small towns around here have local papers-- I kind of assumed that they all just read either the St. Louis or Kansas City paper. Our paper is also really emphasizing the online version, which is still free, but the Massachusetts paper (up around where Smith College and Amherst and UMass Amherst are) has begun to charge for an online subscription.

    I never thought I'd feel comfortable not reading the paper everyday, but I find that I learn most of my news from AOL or YAHOO headlines, or from the nightly TV news.


  10. Ken
    Thank you so much for addressing my question from yesterday. This post was quite interesting. Our little 10 page paper in my town just has a little local news and some IP and UPI articles and of course "man on the street" articles and is mostly quite useless. I don't dare let the subscription pass otherwise we wouldn't know who died! We get the St. Louis paper everyday and I am quite worried about it as it is getting smaller and smaller.

    When I was in Europe a couple years ago I enjoyed listening to the news about the US from the European perspective. I think that perspective is representative of how the US and its policies are viewed around the world. I pretty much get my news from NPR and they have a lot of Euro news ie reporters from the BBC and Le Monde. Apart from the Obamas "rock star" status or whether or not Michelle is comparable to Jackie O, I am more curious on the European's take on this president's stark policy differences from the previous. I was only in Europe twice during the last administration and of course got into many conversations regarding the previous administration. The resounding theme to those conversations, with whom I consider common citizens (my friends and french family), were how could America elect such a president and were most Americans just stupid. I had to explain while I personally did not vote for Bush I did feel the need to defend my countrymen who did vote for him and no Americans are not stupid! Now with our new administration when I go back to Europe I expect a whole different kind of political conversation. My European friends and family love to talk politics and are so good at it.

    When I referred to the local papers I suppose I was more curious as to the editorials and articles that would have been in the paper you would get from Tours. Or is that paper just a mirror of Le Monde? I see news from Le Monde as the french version of The Washington Post or NY Times. I guess what I wanted to know is what newspapers the size of the St. Louis Post Dispatch had to say about the Obama's visit.

    Thanks as usual for the great info. I feel like a "rock star" being featured in your blog!

  11. Hi Ken

    I can't really compare with the US, but around here we do have two local-ish papers, both published by the same company and with largely identical content: L'Indépendant and the Midi-Libre. These cover a biggish area (Languedoc-Roussillon), but they are published in two separate sections. The front section is your local one, and the back section is the (inter)national/sports section. So in our département you can buy 3 different editions: Narbonne, Carcassonne, or Limoux (these towns being about 60 km apart).

    The papers have volunteer local correspondents in villages, so if you want to publicise something in your village you just get your local person to write an article (or give him/her article and photo). About 4 pages in the front half of the paper are dedicated to these reports, varying depending on which edition you buy. So some of the news is *very* local! Got to love those photos of freak tomatoes/massive fish/gigantic cèpes, depending on season ...

    Regarding centralisation, France used to be more centralised than it is now. When Mitterand was elected in 1981, he decided to decentralise by setting up elected regional councils (in typical French style decentralisation was achieved by adding an extra layer of government on top of what was already there!).

    Again, I don't know about the US, but even small communes here have much more autonomy than they do in the UK, and they can group together with neighbouring communes to do stuff that's too large for their individual budgets. And although the Préfet is appointed by Paris, you do have a conseil général which is directly elected.

    Unfortunately the current government seems determined to stifle local initiatives and re-centralise again -- they are even talking about abolishing départements, which were introduced by Napoléon!

  12. A French friend, whose English is perfectly fluent (she reads novels with ease), says the most difficult reading in English is the newspaper.

    It made me feel much better about my problems with French newspapers. I pretty much stop after the headlines. I figured it was just the peculiar sentence construction. I hadn't considered the cultural assumptions angle.

  13. Linda

    I don't know how well versed you are in French but there is a blog written by Anne Sinclair , wife of the current IMF headhoncho ( who would have run against Sarkozy had he not been beaten by Seg Royal for the PS-left wing leadership) where she talks about the politics in the US but since she goes back to France frequently we have a synopsis of what's happening about French and European politics.

    As usual, she has quite a few regular commentators from l'hexagone and the other EU countries who chip in and since last November it is fun to read how they draw parallelism between the US and France or Europe and how they see BHO.

  14. Beaver
    Thank you so much for the advice on the Anne Sinclair blog. I will give it a try and I am pretty good with french except when they throw in the slang. Besides I have my dictionary when all else fails.

    Ken, I don't know if it is so much a cultural difference regarding the newspapers. It sounds like you have a pretty wide choice that I assume have varying takes on the national and international scene. I consider The St. Louis Post Dispatch a local paper and don't in any way compare it to The Washington Post, New York Times or Christian Science Monitor. The Post has international, national and local news and sometimes a pretty lively opinionated editorial section that I think reflects pretty much a midwesterner's attitude. That's probably what I am most curious, is the attitude away from Paris, of the non-Parisians to Obama and his visit.

    I love hearing about the cultural differences and not just the obvious ones. I think you have a good handle on that and communicate it interestingly to your readers.

  15. Merci, Cousine, for the Anne Sinclair link. I didn't know about it, but no use whining now. I plan to come back to it very often. Too bad her husband wasn't the candidate, he might have been elected instead of Sarko,

  16. Bonsoir Cousin,
    You know who is the hubby n'est-ce pas ? DSK
    Ils habitent Georgetown :-)

  17. Anne Sinclair has been a very well known as a television journalist in France for many decades. I'm sure her blog is very interesting. She more or less retired when she married a politician, as did Béatrice Schönberg and Christine Ockrent.

  18. Dear Ken, Your comments about La NR bring back some memories from my time as «secrétaire de rédaction» while a student in Tours in the 60s. At the time, local «correspondants» were quite illiterate (the pay was extremely low)and the secrétaire de rédaction all but made up the articles about local events from almost undecipherable reports. The main thing for the bosses was to get photos showing as many people as possible so they would buy copies of the paper to keep in their patrimony. The part I enjoyed most was the sunday football matches reports for the monday edition. All we got was 2 or 3 terrible pictures and the results. Based on that, we had to create credible titles («Selles écrase Thésée 4 à 0») and write up one or two paragraphs that gullible readers would take for turthful narratives! I'm not sure the practice is still as crude as it used to be but, if so, it would explain your being puzzled when reading local news!
    All the best,


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