The Louette Report: "Turning AFP into One of the World’s Information Leaders in the Digital Age"

, by Admin

The preamble from Pierre Louette’s official report, translated into English by "SOS-AFP".

Turning AFP into One of the World’s Information Leaders in the Digital Age

Report on the changes recommended by AFP as regards its way of functioning and its organisational structure
March 31, 2009

The news agency, an organisation based on religious attention to factual accuracy, has long been the cornerstone of the market for news.
But the very conditions of its credibility are also constraints: the upkeep of geographically dispersed facilities and a worldwide network of journalists, the exigencies of transmission and the need to strive for the most global coverage possible are so many factors which weigh on costs, and are facts of life for news agency activities. So many reasons which explain why there are only a small number of truly global players (three today, one of which being AFP), and also explain why such organisations seek some form of "cost sharing", be it via cooperative structures or a relationship with government.

The present report results from the mission outlined in a letter signed by three French government ministries (for the economy, the budget and culture). The letter confirmed the government’s desire, which had already been expressed in the Aims and Means Contract (COM) between AFP and the state for 2009 to 2013, to have the company’s president draw up ideas for changes to its statutes. The latter are laid down in the Act of Parliament °57-32 of January 10, 1957 which defines AFP’s statutes (whence the term "the 1957 statutes").

This document accordingly lays out the initial proposals made by Agence France-Presse (hereafter also referred to as "AFP" or "the Agency").

This process of reflection is open. Its conclusion was neither laid down in advance in the ministers’ letter, nor handed down in the secrecy of a government ministry. This process of reflection is free. We are influenced neither by ideological constraints nor by a dazzling fascination with modernity.
Any honest observer must agree on two self-evident truths, which are that:

  • The 1957 statutes were a real step forward for the Agency, which up until then had been a public entity [établissement public] and as such had been subject to strong government influence. Whatever happens, it will be essential to retain the prime feature of the 1957 text, which is its emphasis on, and protection of, editorial independence.
  • The 1957 statutes have been incapable of catering for the economic dimension of the Agency’s activity, and have deprived it of real capacity for growth. How many opportunities were missed (financial news in the 1960s, international video in the 90s, etc.) for the lack of the wherewithal to invest and to plunge into new activities or new media?

Eloquently described as "the statutes of liberty" by Jean Marin [the World War II resistance hero who became AFP’s first chief executive under the new dispensation in 1957], the statutes also represent "the statu(te)s quo", as they leave no scope for the company to reinvent itself in depth while remaining faithful to its tradition of independence, no room to truly develop, to "think outside the box".

A good illustration of this fatalistic tendency to "stay as we are" is provided by the data on AFP’s overall payroll. The Havas Agency [the company which later became AFP] employed 1,200 full-time staff before World War II. Its successor, AFP, had 1,920 staff in 1963 and has 2,200 today. Reuters, born shortly after AFP’s predecessor, saw its payroll rise as high as 22,000 after it developed financial news services, without ever relinquishing its role as a general news agency. But its financial news service has helped it survive.

Fifty years after the 1957 statutes were voted into law, the new context we find ourselves in, that of the digital revolution, of the upheaval in both business models and modes of news consumption, not forgetting an unprecedented crisis, are so many factors which force us to rethink the way the Agency is financed.

Alongside the subscription fees it pays for AFP’s services, the French state has up until now been able to make up, via contributions to working capital and the forgiving of debts, both the costs of the obligations of the worldwide presence imposed on AFP, and the relative weakness of the French press. But the challenges the Agency is faced with require resources that are both bigger and more flexible.

The state certainly does not intend to give up the traditional contribution it has made to the Agency’s running, because it is a big customer and in addition AFP, as a vector of the French language [francophonie], and also an actor of national prestige [rayonnement] and indirect democratic support to the French press, provides essential services of general interest.

But the government [l’Etat] wishes that the Agency should at last - without detracting in any way from its job of unflaggingly seeking out and verifying news, and also distributing it - depend on other forms of support, when there is a need to provide help and follow-up for a development project, a change in computer technology or a strategic shift. The economic dimension of the Agency’s projects must find economic support.

As has often been pointed out, the lawmakers who drafted the 1957 law did something highly original. Today we are called upon to propose a way of making this framework evolve, a broadening and an enrichment of AFP’s prospects, without giving up what constitutes the ontological foundation-stone of the Agency: its independence and its contribution to one of the most beautiful of all freedoms: the freedom to make up one’s own mind, and to contribute comments, on the basis of verified facts.

(Attached below: a PDF version of the full report, in French