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"We are all Americans," proclaimed an editorial in Le Monde in the wake of the September 11 attacks, as the world set aside anti-American attitudes and poured out compassion for the U.S. For a week, France's biggest daily newspaper ran an entire page of New York Times articles -- in English -- as an aid to readers straining for insight into stateside sentiment.
That time of solidarity has passed, but the New York Times is back in France. On Apr. 6, a 12-page English-language supplement of the paper accompanied the weekend edition of Le Monde, the first of what's expected to become a weekly feature. The editors of the French paper, consulting with their New York bureau and the Times, chose articles dealing with issues ranging from the rain forests of Brazil to Ford's new CEO William Clay Ford Jr. to art influenced by September 11.
"Le Monde is responding to the growing expectations of readers who are curious and attentive about everything that happens across the Atlantic," says Jean-Marie Colombani, the paper's publisher.
BROADER EXPERIMENTS? The daring aspect of the venture is Colombani's bet that readers are ready to take their news in English. However, with the language's prominence increasing -- it is, after all, the lingua franca of the European Union -- the French aren't the only Europeans who could be reading untranslated articles. National papers in Spain, Germany, and Italy are looking to see how French readers take to a dose of news in English during the three-month trial. If successful, it could pave the way for similar experiments in markets English-language papers haven't penetrated deeply.
Many of the French are already familiar with the New York Times. Some of its articles appear every day on newsstands throughout the country in the International Herald Tribune. But the Times wants to move beyond that group of older male readers, mostly limited to expatriates and businesspeople. Besides, the IHT, a joint venture between the New York Times and the Washington Post with a worldwide circulation of 240,000, is still perceived as an American paper voicing Yankee views. Conversely, its global approach to news means it's not a major player among European papers.
As a supplement to Le Monde, though, the New York Times has shortcut its way into the mainstream. Le Monde reaches more than 2 million readers in France every day, and more than a third of them are under 35. It's an audience that has grown up with American culture.
"DIFFERENT POINT OF VIEW." Colombani, pointing out that learning English is mandatory for French students, thinks there's a built-in interest in reading news in that language. Sure, readers can already get English-language news online, but most French people still want to read their news on paper, not on a computer screen. Indeed, the supplement will appear only in Le Monde's print version, even though the newspaper also operates one of France's most popular Web sites.
If the initial experiment is any forecast, the American addition will be a hit. More than 50% of Le Monde readers already have tried to read in English, and more than two-thirds of them scanned the New York Times articles when they ran in Le Monde in September. "It gives readers access to a different point of view," says Colombani.
The supplement, to be completely financed by advertising in its pages, will challenge other English-language European papers such as the IHT, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times for ad dollars. Colombani expects it to draw in more American advertisers like Ralph Lauren, which is featured on the back page of the first supplement.
CONFLICTING INTERESTS? Of course, the new section could end up taking ad dollars away from the IHT, which is 50%-owned by the New York Times. IHT Publisher Peter Goldmark hesitates to discuss the conflict. "It's an experiment, and therefore it's very tough for anyone to tell at this point what the implications are," he says. But if the supplement is a success, the IHT clearly will face even tougher competition.
Three other European dailies -- Spain's El Pais, Italy's Repubblica, and Germany's Suddeutsche Zeitung -- are considering publishing the same supplement if Le Monde's trial looks like a hit. That would be good news for Le Monde, since the greater volume would reduce production costs.
Despite the wealth of English-language papers available in Europe, the New York Times could be cracking the code for breaking into national audiences. The main competitors have remained on the periphery, as part of the specialized press. If the Le Monde supplement scores, it'll be a sign that European readers can handle their news in English -- as long as it's served as part of their national paper. By Christina White in Paris