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New French Mini-Tabloid Aims At Readers Too Busy to Read

But InfoMatin's niche market also challenges expensive dailies

MARTINE FAUGERON has a new companion for her half-hour trek to work in the morning - a full-color, quick-to-read, inexpensive daily that is shaking up French print journalism.

Called InfoMatin, the Monday-through-Friday newspaper is an attempt to lure ``the nine-tenths of the French who never or no longer buy a newspaper'' into reading daily news again, says one of InfoMatin's founders, Alain Schott. The young, the urban, and the hurried are the newspaper's target readership.

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Yet while initial sales figures suggest that InfoMatin has indeed attracted new readers, the newspaper is also drawing converts from other dailies - which is likely to put pressure on other publications to follow at least some elements of the paper's format.

``I think I'll be buying it every morning for the trip to work,'' says Ms. Faugeron, a university engineering researcher who generally reads another national daily, Liberation, before InfoMatin hit newsstands Jan. 10. ``The information is more accessible, faster, and then of course there's the price.''

InfoMatin costs three francs - about 50 cents - which is half the price of other morning dailies like Le Figaro or Liberation, and less than half the price of the afternoon institution, Le Monde (seven francs, or about $1.20).

``French newspapers are about the most expensive in Europe,'' says Pierre Albert, director of the French Press Institute here. The young especially are finding no room in their daily budget for a six- or seven-franc newspaper. ``The daily press has been pricing itself right out of a readership,'' he says.

InfoMatin's pricing strategy is already having an impact on the French press. This month another Paris daily, Le Parisien, came out with a national version, called Aujourd'hui (Today), selling for 3.5 francs. And as of its Jan. 20 issue, the weekly Le Point trimmed its price 25 percent, to 15 francs. (The price turbulence in France comes on the heals of an all-out price war among Britain's quality press titles.)

More magazine than newspaper

In addition to its price, InfoMatin could influence French newspapers with its style and presentation, which are innovative for France.

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The newspaper, even closer to the size of a magazine than that of a traditional tabloid, is printed in full color, with shaded boxes to draw attention to certain information, and with liberal use of eye-catching, full-color graphics. The front page has no actual articles, just headlines and bulleted statements drawing the reader to the related stories inside.

But as different as the new daily may be from the traditional dailies, InfoMatin cannot be easily categorized as a ``popular'' tabloid or as a ``dumbing down'' of the traditional press.

``By its simple but serious style, its scope and quality, it can't be associated with the popular dailies,'' says Mr. Albert, who also points to InfoMatin's minimal sports and crime coverage, and daily two-page ``investigation'' spread, as factors differentiating it from the popular press. ``It's really something new for the French press.''

The question that remains to be answered now is, will InfoMatin succeed?

The continuing economic difficulties of the French press, plus several unsuccessful attempts to start new dailies aimed at new readers recently, bode ill for InfoMatin.

Off to a roaring start

But after getting off to a roaring start by selling 220,000 copies its first day, InfoMatin settled down to sales of about 150,000 a day - comfortably above the 100,000 minimum its founders said would be needed to keep the paper going. ``We're the only one of the recently launched [and now defunct] dailies to have arrived at this [sales] level,'' says Joel Costi, spokesman for InfoMatin.The test will come about a month from now, when the paper's novelty has worn off - and a pricey advertising launch is past. One thing going for InfoMatin is that it has the financial backing of Le Monde and several other serious European investors.

Media observers will also be watching for the effect the new daily has on other French publications.

The good news for the French press is that ``InfoMatin really is attracting new readers,'' Mr. Costi says. ``We're not causing any significant [sales] drop at other newspapers.'' This is true notably for regional dailies, he adds: Provincial readers are finding they can add a newspaper of national scope to their local reading - without paying the prohibitive national price.

Still, some press observers will be paying particular attention to InfoMatin's effect on Liberation, the 25-year-old daily that has become the Bible of a certain progressive French urban community.

``Liberation could suffer from this new product,'' says Albert, who points out that the typical ``Libe'' reader - young, urban, professional - is exactly the market targeted by InfoMatin. But Liberation's delicate financial situation makes any response like a price cut appear suicidal. ``Liberation can't drop its price and survive,'' he says.

If Faugeron - reading InfoMatin on her morning Metro ride, when before she would have purchased Liberation - is any indication, Liberation may be in trouble. ``This will never replace Le Monde,'' she says, eyeing InfoMatin, ``but I think it's replaced Libe for me.''

But Costi says surveys show InfoMatin has only ``nibbled away'' 2 to 3 percent of Liberation's readers. ``We're good news for the press in France, because we're drawing the daily reader back in,'' he says, adding that this is particularly true among young women. ``That success alone, where others before us have failed, will be enough to shake things up'' on the French press scene.

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