Local Media for Democracy — country focus: France

Report authored by Franck Bousquet, Laboratoire d’études et d’analyse en sciences sociales (LERASS), Université de Toulouse


Strictly speaking, there is no debate about news deserts in France. Independent online titles such as Mediacités have raised the issue of the closure of local branches of daily regional press (Presse Quotidienne Régionale– PQR) titles, and the merger of France 3 and France Bleu newsrooms within the public audio-visual service is causing a stir, but it is not possible to call this a public problem at this stage. Specialised newspapers such as the Courrier des maires et des élus locaux[1] (a journal for locally elected representatives) are trying to open the debate about news deserts, but without any mention in the political debate or in the mainstream media.

However, there is a debate on media concentration, which strangely spares local media, even though it is the most concentrated media sector.[2] In many areas, there is even a monopoly of certain players.

France being a highly administratively centralised country, the notion of local media is not defined, and “local” media are considered to be those whose territory of coverage is smaller than the national territory. Community media have no legal recognition; they are assimilated to associative media.

In France, until the 1980s, 3 players offered local information: the regional daily press; the local and regional weekly press; state-owned public television, with its regional stations, and state-owned radio, with the France Bleu network. In the early 1980s, these media were joined by community and commercial radio stations and television channels, first on cable and then on terrestrial networks at the end of the 1980s.

Online media added to this landscape since the mid-2000s. However, in terms of audience and turnover, today the landscape is still dominated by the traditional players, i.e. the PQR, the Presse Hebdomadaire Régionale et Locale (PHRL) and state-owned public television, the only ones to cover the whole country, even if the granularity of the content they offer does not extend to all territories.

Unsurprisingly, the least economically advantaged areas (peri-urban and rural zones) are also those that suffer most from a problem of local information supply or distribution of existing supply.

[1] Gare à l’appauvrissement de l’information locale, Le courrier des maires et des élus locaux, n°361, 12 novembre 2021.

[2] À l’heure du numérique, la concentration des médias en question ? – Rapports de commission d’enquête Rapport n° 593 (2021-2022), tome I, déposé le 29 mars 2022.

Main findings

Granularity of infrastructure of local media – Medium risk (54%)

In France, urban areas are the best served by local media outlets. They benefit not only from several daily pages in the PQR titles but also from local television channels that cover news related to these areas. Similarly, regional public television devotes a significant proportion of its news to these areas. Furthermore, pure players are generally concentrated in urban areas where they exercise investigative journalism and the national news media concentrate their coverage on urban areas.

As far as the print media are concerned, more than one journalist in ten has become redundant since 2009 in the regional daily press newspapers (PQR). In ten years, according to a 2019 survey by Mediacités[1]staff numbers have fallen by 12.5% in local dailies. A total of 108 local branches of PQR have closed over the last ten years in mainland France, according to the same survey. Most closures concern agencies in rural areas.

The general picture is slightly different for the local and regional weekly press. According to the 2022 figures from the Observatoire des métiers de la presse[2], the number of journalists in PHRL has been stable for ten years, despite the disappearance of at least 9 weeklies and 19 local agencies.

In radio and television, with around 400 and 1,400 journalists respectively working in the regions, the public service media France Bleu and France 3 have achieved stable figures over ten years. There are currently 33 local editorial offices for France Télévision, including 9 in the French overseas territories, and 44 France Bleu stations and as many editorial offices[3].

The 44 France Bleu stations do not, however, provide perfect coverage of mainland France. Most stations have between eight and twelve journalists working at the station’s head office, and sometimes one or two reporters in residence (RER) in another town in the area. In the absence of a RER, some departments are covered only sparingly. This is, for example, the case for Saône-et-Loire, Aisne, Oise, Allier and Cantal. The situation is similar for France 3, but in addition the journalists are all based in the regional agencies and have to travel to cover stories outside the metropolises.

1,200 journalists work for Agence France Presse (AFP). The agency has bureaus in France’s major cities, but not in all regions. There are offices in Nice, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Rennes, Lyon and Lille. AFP then calls on freelancers to cover events in areas where it is not permanently present[4]. Once again, however, the French news network is highly centralised in urban areas. It is organised in a “hub-and-spoke” pattern from the centre of Paris, with a similar structure in the main cities.

[1] K. Augeart, ‘Au moins 108 agences locales de presse quotidienne régionale ont fermé en dix ans’, Mediacites, 26 June 2019. https://www.mediacites.fr/enquete/national/2019/06/26/au-moins-108-agences-locales-de-presse-quotidienne-regionale-ont-ferme-en-dix-ans/

[2] Observatoire des métiers de la presse, ‘ La comparaison du nombre de journalistes par tranches d’âge et par sous-secteurs de la presse écrite en 2022’https://data.metiers-presse.org/explore.php#bar/alljournalists/journalistNumber/ageSlice/pressSubSectors/none/2022/none

[3] Ministere de la Culture,  ‘Contrats d’objectifs et de moyens 2020-2023 entre l’Etat et les entreprises audiovisuelles publiques’, 22 August 2023 https://www.culture.gouv.fr/Thematiques/Audiovisuel/Publications/Contrats-d-objectifs-et-de-moyens-2020-2023-entre-l-Etat-et-les-entreprises-audiovisuelles-publiques

[4] Rapport annuel AFP 2021, AFP – 2022: https://www.afp.com/communication/report_2022/AFP_RapportAnnuel_2021_FR_web.pdf  

Market and reach – Medium risk (44%)

France’s leading local media, PQR saw its revenues fall from 2,544,633 to 2,064,607 euros between 2015 and 2020. Revenues from physical sales have fallen steadily (1,613,182 to 1,431,649 euros), as have advertising revenues (931,452 to 632,959 euros). Digital revenues (sales and advertising) have risen steadily (73,664 to 120,625 euros), but this has not offset the losses recorded for the print press[1].

There was a collapse in 2020 due to the pandemic and as a result, the figures for 2021 and 2022 are higher than those for 2020, but they continue the downward trend observed since the early 2000s. Community media with advertising resources have suffered the same difficulties. For television and radio, the trend is different, even though 2020 was also synonymous with a significant decline. Advertising revenues for local television and radio have tended to remain stable over a 10-year period. In 2022, local radio returned to the level of advertising revenue achieved in 2019 before the health crisis although radio audiences are tending to decline. Despite this situation, the number of local media outlets in France has remained stable over the last five years.

It must be said that there is considerable and long-standing state support for the media in general (from which local media benefit) and for the press in particular. Support for the press meets one or other of three major objectives: the development of distribution, the defence of pluralism, and the modernisation and diversification towards multimedia of press companies. In total, this aid amounted to 110 million euros by 2022[2].

In addition, there is specific aid for local social information media (€1.8m euros in 2021 for publications, press websites, radio, television, web TVs, web radios, etc.), a support fund for community radio stations (€ 32m in 2021, shared between 720 radio stations) and support for online press services as part of the support for pluralism (€8m shared by local and national online media).

However, the major regional press groups continue to capture the lion’s share of direct aid and distribution aid (the top 12 groups share € 24m in 2021).

In recent years, these amounts have remained stable or even increased slightly.

In addition to these figures, the state and local authorities purchase advertising space in the media. In the case of the state, 465 million euros are spent each year on advertising campaigns, but details of this expenditure are not public, and it is not possible to assess the share of local media in this total.[3] The state puts the entire amount out to tender with an agency that purchases the advertising space itself. For local authorities, it is even more opaque. There is no transparency on the amounts involved, but the main local authorities regularly buy space in the most widely distributed newspapers.

Finally, the principal method the French choose to pay for local news is by subscription, and this applies to the regional daily press, the local weekly press and the online press. This is followed by payment per issue, and then participatory financing.

Subscriptions account for 64% of PQR circulation, particularly through home delivery, which accounts for 54% of paper copies. Newsstand sales account for 21% of sales. This is followed by individual digital copies (13%) and digital subscriptions (2%)[4].

The digital subscription model favoured by the new local news players born on the internet has still not stabilised. The main players using it (Mediacités, Marsactu, Rue89 Strasbourg, etc.) are not in a comfortable economic situation and are regularly forced to launch calls for participatory funding.

[1] Ministère de la Culture, ‘Données sur la presse écrite‘: https://www.culture.gouv.fr/fr/Thematiques/Presse-ecrite/Donnees-sur-la-presse-ecrite

[2] Ministère de la Culture, ‘Tableaux des titres de presse aidés’, 8 September 2023: https://www.culture.gouv.fr/Thematiques/Presse-ecrite/Tableaux-des-titres-de-presse-aides2

[3] Rapport sur les dépenses de communication de l’État, Cour des comptes – 2011: https://www.ccomptes.fr/sites/default/files/EzPublish/Depenses-de-communication-des-ministeres.pdf

[4] ACMP, OBSERVATOIRE 2023 DE L’ACPM (SYNTHÈSES 2022) https://www.acpm.fr/Les-chiffres/Observatoire-2023-de-l-ACPM-Syntheses-2022 

Safety of local journalists – Medium risk (46%)

A number of aspects of the conditions under which journalists work in France are governed by the collective agreement[1], which also applies to freelance journalists, who have benefited from the presumption of salaried status since 1974. The status of journalists is protected by the Brachard law of 1935, which guarantees professional benefits shared by the entire profession, including the conscience clause, the assignment clause and one month’s salary per year of seniority in the event of dismissal.

But, today, for local media, the trend matches that of national media, with a declining number of journalists, even though the demand for production has continued to increase as media have decided to invest more and more in digital media (audio-visual production, writing, podcasts, digital social networks, etc). As a result, actual working conditions have tended to deteriorate. The closure of certain local agencies and the decline in the number of journalists have reinforced the practice of desk-based journalism, even though local journalists are still working in the field.

As far as social security benefits and job protection are concerned, the rules are those set out in the collective agreement. However, local journalists are paid less than journalists working in national media. A minimum salary scale is set by decree, regulating remuneration according to the duties performed.

Open-ended contracts are still the rule for most local journalists [2], although precarious contracts, particularly long internships, are on the raise.

With regards to the physical and psychological safety of journalists, a significant number of the 432 incidents reported between 2018 and 2023 by Mapping Media Freedom[3], more than half, concern local journalists. This is explained in particular by their proximity to the subjects covered and their visibility in the local community. Not all incidents are of the same severity, and they range from insults and tags on vehicles to physical threats or attempted physical harm, or even attempted murder.

The main trade union in the country, the Syndicat National du Journalisme (SNJ) frequently denounces situations where the situation imposed on journalists makes it impossible for them to respect professional ethics. The SNJ is present in all companies with more than 50 employees but less so in smaller companies, where the law does not require a trade union presence[4].

Investigative journalism is the most affected by SLAPP procedures, with new online media spearheading the trend. These outlets are regularly taken to court through SLAPP proceedings that force them to incur financial costs and spend energy defending themselves. This is the case in Brittany, for example, with the agri-food industry[5]. It is also the case with Le Poulpe in Rouen being sued by a pollution control company, and Mediacités, which is sued by local authorities and businesses in every town where it produces investigative reports.

[1] SNJ, ‘Convention collective de travail des journalistes’: https://www.snj.fr/convention-collective-de-travail-des-journalistes/présentation

[2] La PQR, editions La Découverte, Franck Bousquet Pauline Amiel – 2021: https://www.editionsladecouverte.fr/la_presse_quotidienne_regionale-9782348057939

[3] Mapping Media Freedom, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom – 2023: https://www.mappingmediafreedom.org/#/

[4] Article L2143-6, Code du travail – 2023: https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/codes/section_lc/LEGITEXT000006072050/LEGISCTA000006195667/#LEGISCTA000006195667

[5] S. Foucart, ‘Dans l’ouest de la France, les violences et intimidations contre des défenseurs de l’environnement se multiplient,’, Le Monde, 29 March 2023: https://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2023/03/29/dans-l-ouest-de-la-france-les-violences-et-intimidations-contre-des-defenseurs-de-l-environnement-se-multiplient_6167468_3244.html

Editorial independence – Medium risk (50%)

In France, there is no law regulating the possibility of a local or national political leader, or an elected official in general, controlling one or more media outlets. In terms of ownership control, only one press group, the family-owned La Dépêche du Midi, which has a monopoly on daily written news in many parts of the Occitania region, can be said to have a mix of political and media interests.

The criteria for direct and indirect subsidies are transparent; the amounts given have been published since 2013. But the criteria are numerous, as are the exceptions, which are difficult to understand. What emerges is that the groups receiving the most support are invariably the biggest, those that own the most media outlets and have the largest circulation.

It is a different story when it comes to the various subsidies and purchases of advertising space by local authorities, which are much opaquer, and more easily interpreted as instruments of influence, as demonstrated by the controversy over the subsidies granted by the region to certain newspapers on Reunion Island[1], or Marsactu‘s call for transparency in local authority subsidies[2].

The two main instruments for combatting political influence are the journalist’s statute[3] and editorial charters[4]. But these are not enough to prevent the co-management of local affairs and an economic situation that makes the media dependent on announcements from the local authorities in the hands of politicians, a situation that affects almost all local and regional titles.

Commercial interference is regulated by a law prohibiting editorial advertising.[5] However, in reality, commercial contingencies are omnipresent in the local media, their dependence on the advertising market and partnerships increasing as income from readers decreases. From this point of view, only advertisement-free titles, those that exist solely on subscriptions or diversified advertising revenues, are safe. For PQR titles, as for local television, dependence is strong.

Similarly, PQR titles have diversified their activities, and are increasingly organisers of sporting, cultural and business events, most often in partnership with local authorities. Even though the editorial teams are formally independent, they are not able to take a critical look at these events. What can be said initially is that the PQR tends to favour the voice of the most powerful, those who make the agenda and who are at the same time its advertisers and partners. At the same time, there are editorial differences between the various PQR titles.

In France, the media regulatory authority is ARCOM, which has jurisdiction over the audiovisual sector alone. It is an independent public authority, but its members are appointed by the country’s main political authorities. However, the questioning of the independence of ARCOM seems to be less prevalent today than it was a few years ago. Locally, its role is limited to frequency allocation. As the dominant local media is the press, it is not within its remit.

The directors of France Télévision‘s local stations are appointed by the President of France Télévision on the recommendation of the director of the France 3 regional network, who is himself appointed by the President of France Télévision. The same system applies to the local public radio station, France Bleu. The presidents of France Télévision and Radio France are appointed on the recommendation of ARCOM. There is no direct influence, but their appointment is not made without political consideration, as the members of ARCOM are appointed by elected representatives and the appointment decree depends directly on the Presidency. In France, the influence of other political bodies – regional, departmental or local – on PSM’ s local branches is limited.[6]

[1] E. Lauret, ‘Configuration contemporaine du journalisme local de La Réunion. Ruptures et continuités dans les pratiques professionnelles et dans les représentations sociales des journalistes’,Thèse de doctorat, 2023.

[2] ‘Demandons la transparence sur les aides aux médias des collectivités locales’, Marsactu – 2021: https://marsactu.fr/agora/demandons-la-transparence-sur-les-aides-aux-medias-des-collectivites-locales/

[3] The Brachard law of 1935.

[4] LOI n° 2016-1524 du 14 novembre 2016 visant à renforcer la liberté, l’indépendance et le pluralisme des médias, Journal Officiel – 2016: https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/jorf/id/JORFTEXT000033385368  

[5] Article 10 of the amended law of 1 August 1986 on the legal status of the press.

[6] CSA. Présidence de France Télévisions: procédure de nomination, CSA – 2020: https://www.csa.fr/Cles-de-l-audiovisuel/Connaitre/Liberte-des-medias-audiovisuels-et-regulation/Comment-sont-nommes-les-presidents-de-l-audiovisuel-public 

Social inclusiveness – Medium risk (54%)

The French doctrine is that of a Republic that is “One and Indivisible”. There is therefore no official recognition of minority groups, or even a list of them.

However, Radio France broadcasts programs in regional languages in all the regions concerned. For its part, France 3 contributes several hundred hours a year to the expression of the main regional languages spoken in France. Radio France Outre-Mer, for its part, is pursuing its policy in favor of regional languages, both in its programming and in its news programs. On the other hand, no programs in immigrant languages are broadcast on the French public service.

Minority languages spoken by immigrant populations are mainly present on associative radio or media produced abroad, which are now easily accessible via the internet or satellite[1].

The only offline media available in immigrant languages are private Arabic-language radio stations (e.g. Radio Gazelle in Marseille, Radio Orient in several French cities).

For most of the country, i.e. municipalities with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants, rural areas, suburban areas and suburbs, the situation is one of coverage by PQR correspondents, by private or community radio stations with very small editorial teams, by local weeklies producing mirror information and by information scattered across social networks and local authority websites. In other words, there is virtually no information available for in-depth analysis of local issues, public policies or debates on the future of the region. It is true that the regional daily press is not a unitary one, and some titles such as Ouest-France or Sud-Ouest try to cover the public problems of the regions, but with limited journalistic resources. For most of the other titles, the local pages are filled with mirror news, information services and the relay of institutional communication. In the larger towns, political issues are better covered[2]. First, in the PQR, because the editorial teams are larger and informed journalists are present on a long-term basis. Second, because local public radio and television newsrooms work on these issues, and third, because the new players in local investigation focus on these areas. As a result, public information in France, which enables citizens to be informed and make informed choices about local life, seems to be reserved for the country’s major cities.

[1]D. Diminescu, ‘ Les langues de l’immigration dans les médias en France’,  2023: http://www.e-diasporas.fr/#workingpapers

[2]  P. Amiel and F. Bousquet, ‘Les enjeux de l’information et de la communication. La presse quotidienne régionale : un modèle informationnel sous tension’,  Les Enjeux de l’information et de la communication, 23 (1), pp. 81-92, 2022: https://www.cairn.info/revue-les-enjeux-de-l-information-et-de-la-communication-2022-1-page-81.htm&wt.src=pdf

Best practices and open public sphere

There are two categories of innovative practices for enhancing an open and thriving public sphere: those coming from traditional media, in particular the PQR, and those coming from new entrants to the market. The former aim to offer new products (such as podcasts, specialised newsletters, solution journalism articles, themed supplements or supplements aimed at a well-targeted audience, event organisation, videos on social networking sites or live tweets of certain events) or to reorganise their services to better meet the demand (by creating cross-functional posts for engagement managers, such as at La Montagne). Through these innovations, these players are trying to encourage the engagement of their readers, which can often be measured by metrics.[1]

The latter, while also resorting to these new products, sometimes offer more radical innovations, as they have built their editorial models on new formats and new ways of reaching news consumers. For example, online newspapers such as Mediacités involve their readers in the choice of certain surveys and also offer them the chance to hold shares in the publishing company; they also offer innovative formats that involve readers, such as monitoring the election promises of mayors elected in 2020. Their aim is to establish a real proximity and relationship of trust with their readers.

However, the most enduring formats and the most innovative ways of providing local information come from more or less organised non-professional Facebook groups, which relay, centralise, reformat and comment on information at local or department level[2].

Entirely free of charge, these groups act as a social link and provide information that is often essential for organising daily life.

[1] N. Pignard-Cheynel  and  L.a Amigo, ‘(Re)connecting with audiences. An overview of audience-inclusion initiatives in European French-speaking local news media’, Journalism, 24(12), pp. 2612-2631, 2023: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/14648849231173299

[2] O. Tredan and P.Gestin, ‘La presse locale sous l’influence des plateformes numériques : l’influence de Facebook sur la circulation de l’information locale’, Études de communication, 61 (2), pp. 113-131, 2023.

Map of Local Newsrooms Coverage in France

This map shows the local media coverage in France in 2019, that is, local media outlets established in France, by administrative department. You have the option to filter by media format and department. Hover over a department to view its media coverage, giving a detailed breakdown by media format. Clicking on a specific department provides a detailed list of media outlets in the table below the map, complete with information on media format. The original data source for this visualization is Ouest Médialab / Festival de l’info locale and can be accessed by clicking here.