Can France Save Newspapers by Giving Them Away?

France's plan to give free newspapers to 18-  to 24-year olds to turn them into regular customers is the latest government effort to save the news, and it won't be the last. Is it a good idea? I have a lot of doubts.*

In France one of the things that has contributed to the fall of private newspapers happens to be the thousands of free newspapers handed out by subways, which gave paid papers a headache back in 2005. Those papers are well-read because they're designed for a commuter audience. In other words, they adapted to the market. Giving away paid-newspapers for free doubles down on a business strategy that is already failing.

Think of it this way: The government's buying free paper versions of content that young people can already read online and foisting it upon the very demographic that is already reading other free newspapers and considers the news free, anyway. This does not strike me as the right strategy to save the press. Even a direct subsidy would at least bypass the inefficiency of printing more fishwrap.

The broader question of course is whether the government has any business subsidizing the news at all. Atlantic Business touched on this subject a few months ago when Conor Clarke and Michael Kinsley assessed the positive externality of an informed audience. I'm inclined to agree with Conor that if you consider news a public good, like vaccines, one can make a fine argument in the abstract for a subsidy. But how you subsidize makes a big difference. You don't want to design a system that prefers certain types of news because, as Kinsley wrote, ideological subsides are a cousin of censorship. The French strategy also makes the mistake of pretending dead trees and ink perform a specific civic function. If they want to save the content, direct subsidies and tax credits would be much more efficient.

*...even though personal history suggests that free copies can hook a customer. Starting in January New York magazine sent me free copies for about three months, and now I'm a subscriber. But a) It's a magazine that really benefits from layout in way print newspapers usually don't; b) I already subscribed to other print magazines, unlike 90 percent of young French people; and c) I have a crush on NYC.