Agence France Presse, an international news agency of the future?

Article  by  Camille LAVILLE  •  Published 16.11.2010  •  Updated 17.11.2010
AFP
While Agence France Presse has remained strong in the Internet age, its position in the top three news agencies seems difficult to maintain due to its strong links with the French government.





Summary

Introduction

The French news agency Agence France Presse is the third leading news agency in the world after Reuters and Associated Press. It is also the oldest one, an offshoot of the Havas agency that was founded in 1835. Amongst the 284 news agencies in France, Agence France Presse is the only one to operate on an international scale thanks to its large worldwide news coverage network. The arrival of the Internet and the transformation of the written press scene has driven the agencies to adapt, notably by offering new media and formats to their existing and new customers. However, the AFP has a particular status that impedes it from making the necessary investments to develop. Whilst during the first quarter of 2010 it seemed incontestable that this status would be changed, despite the reticence of the agency’s journalist unions, the recent resignation of its CEO, Pierre Louette, and the appearance of an expert report advocating the conservation of this status has incited fears that the AFP will not be capable of maintaining its title of third leading agency in the world over the next few years due to a lack of sufficient resources necessary for development and a gradual withdrawal of government funding.
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A historical news agency

The AFP was founded just after the Second World War at the instigation of the Government. The French Press Office (OFI – Office Français d’Information), which was founded by the Vichy government as an offshoot of the the Havas agency’s news department, became the Agence France Presse with the 30th September 1944 decree that granted it the temporary status of a public administrative institution. These decrees are notably aimed at aiding the development of the free press outside of any political or economic influence. The 30th September 1944 decree created a provisional organisation entrusted with the collection and distribution of information both in France and abroad. The Agence France Presse is a public institution that has both a judicial personality and financial autonomy.
 
In 1957, the agency’s status was modified and came under the joint control of both the government and the French press. It was made up of two governing bodies. The agency has an administrative committee made up of media representatives as well as a board of governors that ensures that the agency’s commitments are respected: “to seek, both in France and throughout the French Union and abroad, the elements of complete and objective information; to make this information available to users in exchange for payment”. Nevertheless, there have been many attempts to change its status (such as in 1968, when a general assembly of AFP journalists voted 286 to 133, with 24 abstentions and 550 registered voters, for a resolution criticising the ill-adapted status and calling for a new status that would guarantee a majority staff representation and the agency’s financial independence). More recently, the status review project introduced by Pierre Louette with governmental agreement generated a petition with more than 20,000 signatures.
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A vast international network

              (D.R. : Laville Camille)
 
The AFP’s head office is in the Place de la Bourse (next to the stock exchange) in Paris. It houses the agency’s management, the thematic desks (religion, culture, legal, economy, main publishing…), the photography department and the regional European and African desks. The agency also has four other regional desks (for Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and North America).

In May 2010, the Agence France Presse had 2159 permanent journalists on its staff. Alongside this is a somewhat smaller number of temporary journalists as well as a vast network of freelancers - of 81 different nationalities - who work all over the world for the AFP. These various employees cover worldwide news for the agency 24 hours a day, seven days a week in 165 countries, six languages and in many different formats: written, audiovisual, audio, multimedia and photographic.
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A diverse clientele

The AFP’s international client revenue represented 28% of its global revenue in 2007. Its collaboration with regional press agencies allowed them to increase regional market revenue in 2008: Middle East (+8.5%), South America (+7.2%) and Asia (+6.3%). However, several of the national European agencies, such as the EFE and the DPA, impede the AFP’s development in Europe, as they are able to offer a more in-depth local and regional news coverage thanks to their more limited coverage area. In the highly competitive international context, the AFP’s strategy is to aim to sign new agreements with emerging media players. These partnerships are part of a global strategy that aims to offer new multimedia products and to place the AFP within niches that offer great added value.
 
Distribution of the AFP’s global clients in 2008
Source: Financial law - 2008
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Financially dependant on the Government

The AFP’s status impedes it from having the necessary financial resources to develop in the same way as its competitors, Reuters and the AP. Indeed, the Government is both the business’s main financer and main client at the same time [+] Note“In 1981, 60 percent of funds came from public service subscriptions, 65 percent even if the official radio and television subscriptions are taken into consideration. 15 percent come from the French press and another 15 percent from international sales.” Huteau, Jean, Ullmann, Bernard, AFP, A History of the Agence France Presse: 1944-1990 (Une histoire de l’Agence France Presse : 1944-1990), Robert Laffont, Paris, 1992, page 424.X [1]. Between the seventies and eighties, agencies had to update their modes of production, resulting in a rise in deficit that reached 84.52 million francs, i.e. 10% of sales figures in 1983. To counter this deficit, the government then created the first objectives and means contract (C.O.M – Contrat d’objectifs et de moyens) to cover the period between 2004 and 2007, which was then followed by many other similar contracts. With this contract, the government commits itself to maintaining an increase of subscriptions greater than inflation as long as the AFP is committed to balancing its finances with a rise of sales takings and an increased managerial effort.
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An ever-suspect credibility

The links that the AFP maintains with the government are very much a specificity of this agency. Indeed, rival international press agencies do not have any financial links to the government of the country where their head offices are based. Ever since its beginnings, the agency’s independence has been questioned, not only by rivals but also by independent journalists, due to this close financial link to the government. The status modification project instigated in 2009 by the chairmanship and the former Chief Executive Officer, Pierre Louette, gave hope that the AFP might have a new opportunity to put this lack of credibility to an end, but this disappeared when the CEO resigned.
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Heading towards new multimedia products and contents

The AFP is attempting to develop an Internet presence. Since the existence of the Internet, competition to cover the news has grown fierce. In such a context, the AFP cannot afford to limit itself to its traditional activities. In 2000, they created a department dedicated to multimedia development, called MediaLab. This department aims to create new multimedia products and to adapt existing contents for use with new platforms such as mobile phones or the Internet. Between 2007 and 2008, the AFP’s profits coming from multimedia rose by 25% thanks to its “Online Newspaper”, which gives its clients access to global news in seven different languages, with text, photos, charts and videos aimed at mobile phone and Internet site companies.
 
In addition to this, the AFP is in the process of modernising its editorial system by replacing the journalist’s old consoles with new multimedia ones. This is the 4XML project to which the government is contributing more than 20 million euros. The 4XML system is introduced as a new system that allows the employees to produce multimedia “contents” for their customers with a text that is then enriched with sound and images. Customers will soon be able to surf an enormous library of multimedia data.
 
Furthermore, in 2007 the AFP acquired 34% of an amateur journalism website called Citizenside. The site offers photos and videos supplied by amateur journalists and contributors from around 90 countries. The AFP has incorporated these amateur images into its own bank of images, where its 7000 customers can now find whatever they are looking for.
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The conservation of the current status will impede the agency from maintaining its role as the third leading global agen

In 2009, the government asked the CEO at the time, Pierre Louette, who was just beginning his second term in this role at the AFP, to modify the press company’s status, set in 1957. However he suddenly resigned on the 24th February 2010 and the process that seemed to be moving the agency’s status towards partially private financing wasn’t able to stand up in the face of journalistic opposition, with a new president being nominated. Emmanuel Hoog arrived at the head of the company and a report was brought forward to the Minister of Culture and Communications, Frédéric Mitterand, by Henri Pigeat and a committee advocating the conservation of the 1957 status. Whilst this decision reassured the unions made up of such experts as Jean-Marie Colombani, Michèle Cotta, Francis Teitgen and Fabrice Boé, who feared the arrival of private capitals into the AFP budget, the conservation of this status left little chance that that the AFP would be able to make the necessary investments for its development. The report concludes that “If it is no longer a question of transforming the agency into a public company and if we keep the heart of its status intact (articles 1 and 2 most importantly, Editor’s Note), some changes are necessary so that AFP can compete with the other companies across the globe” therefore leaving the field of possibilities open. One must hope that the agency’s new CEO will have the necessary freedom to make firm decisions regarding the reorganisation of the agency.
 
Key Information:
Agence France Presse CEO: Emmanuel Hoog
Sales Figures: 270 million Euros, of which 160 are from “commercial clients” and 110 are “government subscriptions”
2009 profits: 2 million Euros
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Selective Bibliography

Olivier BOYD-BARRETT,  Michael PALMER, Le trafic des nouvelles, les agences mondiales d'information, ed. Alain Moreau, Paris, 1980.
 
Pierre FREDERIX, Un siècle de chasse aux nouvelles, de l’Agence d’information Havas à l’Agence France Presse (1835-1957), Flammarion, Paris, 1959.
 
Jean HUTEAU, Bernard ULLMANN, AFP, Une histoire de l’Agence France Presse : 1944-1990, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1992
 
Eric LAGNEAU, "Le style agencier et ses déclinaisons thématiques. L’exemple des journalistes de l’Agence France Presse", Revue Réseaux n°111, 2002.
 
Camille LAVILLE, Les Transformations du journalisme de 1945 à 2010: le cas des correspondants étrangers de l’Agence France Presse, éditions Ina- De Boeck, coll. Médias-Recherches, novembre 2010.
 
Camille LAVILLE, "Agence France Presse (AFP) in French and Global Contexts" in  News Agencies in the turbulent era of Internet  dirigé par Oliver Boyd Barrett, Col-leccio Lexikon, Generalitat de Catalunya, Mai 2010.
 
Camille LAVILLE, "1945-2005: Transformations des contenus et du modèle journalistique", Réseaux, Juillet 2007.
 
Henri PIGEAT, Le nouveau désordre mondial de l’information, Hachette, Paris, 1987.
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  • 1. “In 1981, 60 percent of funds came from public service subscriptions, 65 percent even if the official radio and television subscriptions are taken into consideration. 15 percent come from the French press and another 15 percent from international sales.” Huteau, Jean, Ullmann, Bernard, AFP,
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