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Agence France-Presse Branch of the French National CGT Journalists' Union (SNJ-CGT)


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AFP: "All-Multimedia" 
or Just "All Messed Up"?

 

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As AFP’s management presses ahead with its plans to demolish our company statutes in the name of an alleged "technological revolution", and to throw in a wages freeze and staffing cuts for good measure, the CGT journalists’ trade union would like to make the following points:

One does not have to look very far into the plans laid by the current French government for AFP to realise to what extent the whole edifice depends on a single, apparently luminous, idea. That a "technological revolution" is under way in the overall media landscape, and that our company is in great danger of missing the boat if we do not act right now.

The opening sentence of the mission statement handed down by the government to our CEO Pierre Louette reads as follows (our translation): "Technological changes are shaking up the overall media universe and obliging companies in the sector to adapt rapidly. Agence France-Presse is not exempt from this trend..."

The latest Aims and Means Contract that Pierre Louette has signed with the government opens in similar vein: its very first paragraph asserts that: "The revolutions under way in the media sector (the explosion in the use of the Internet, the difficulties experienced by traditional clients, major financial concentrations) shed new light on the constraints under which [AFP] has traditionally had to operate."

All of which raises at least two basic questions:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Even if it is true, are the team currently running AFP taking us in the right direction to meet such a daunting challenge?

1: Is It True?

The SNJ-CGT has already pointed out that a good many of the techological changes that have been presented in recent years as fully-fledged revolutions are in fact nothing of the sort. A few examples:

- "Second Life" (http://secondlife.com/), the virtual universe which raised so many commercial hopes that the Reuters news agency decided to open its own virtual bureau there, is but a shadow of its former self. The Reuters office shut down in October 2008, and the media buzz has long since moved on to the Next Big Thing.

- The so-called "Web 2.0" phenomenon, symbolised by networking sites such as MySpace (http://www.myspace.com/) and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/), has certainly attracted a lot of eyeballs, notably among the young, but no major company has so far worked out how to make money from it. There again it is essential to distinguish between the buzz generated by the media (of which we are a part) and a true technological revolution capable of providing a viable commercial model for a company such as ours.

- Video-sharing sites such as YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/) and the French DailyMotion (http://www.dailymotion.com/) are also attracting a lot of attention, but they above all constitute danger zones for intellectual property. And even supposing that a company such as AFP can protect itself against the danger of wholesale theft, the basic problem remains the business model. To date, nobody knows how to make money with these sites.

- The latest Big Thing, "Twitter" (http://twitter.com/) has got all the technophiles twittering, and has replaced Facebook in the hearts of "in the know" journalists. But its founders are the first to admit that they have no idea how to make it profitable.

It is difficult to see in what way these phenomena constitute revolutions anywhere near as fundamental as the two major changes which have shaken up the media landscape in the past forty years or so: the arrival of computer networks in the 1960s and the advent of the Internet in the early 1990s.

AFP successfully made it through both of those revolutions without any need to demolish the statutes that guarantee its independence.

Begging the Question

The non-existence of any new "technological revolution" that could justify both unprecedented austerity measures on the wages front and the destruction of our half-century old statutes is the reason why management has been using such shrill methods to try and get its message across.

The "AFP Mediawatch" blog (http://mediawatch.afp.com/), which the SNJ-CGT on several occasions criticised both in its leaflets and in meetings with management (for people working at AFP, check the minutes of the monthly "DPJ" management-union meetings for December 2008 and January 2009), is a de facto propaganda tool aimed at selling the supposed "multimedia revolution".

It is indeed striking to see just how much the said blog concentrates almost exclusively on the US media in general, and on US online media in particular. Almost totally forgotten are print media, the media in the rest of the world, including France, and notably the print and TV media of the developing world. Sectors which generate around 85% of AFP’s sales, but which alas do not find favour with our eminent blogger-directors, who only see, and talk about, what they want to see.

Gaily mixing up facts and opinions, painting a exaggeratedly dire and biased picture of recent media developments, naïvely taking the United States as the model which the rest of the world is necessarily going to follow, this blog is in fact nothing more than a giant exercise in begging the question. "A revolution is under way because we tell you so - we must therefore adapt because a revolution is under way."

A striking example of this circular reasoning can be found in an interview granted by Eric Scherer, AFP’s director for strategy and external relations, to the organisers of a new media conference held in October 2008 (cf http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u66EOMyWuG8). A transcript of M. Scherer’s statements can be found at the end of the present text).

Hailing the advantages of animated graphics for presenting information in a concise and attractive form, M. Scherer asserts that such documents "address a lot of the issues that newspapers face today, meaning the fact that young people aren’t reading any more, the fact that you have an attention problem during the day, the fact that journalists will have to [develop] multimedia skills".

In other words, we are called upon to acquire multimedia skills not only because "young people aren’t reading any more", but also because... we are called upon to acquire multimedia skills.

We do not seek in any way to under-rate the importance of animated graphics. But when the man who played a key role in past flops such as the now abandoned "Global Ethics Monitor" and wine wire services tells us, in his capacity as an AFP director, that animated graphics should in future be produced upstream of text output, despite the fact that they are among the most complex and time-consuming of all documents to create, we are not greatly impressed.

"For XML"? Yes, But How?

The thing that pretty well all these fashionable Internet-based ideas have in common, from the standpoint of a news company like AFP, is that they all require various combinations of text and pictures, including both still and animated graphics.

But that problem, which underlies the agency’s "2XML" (To XML) and "4XML" (For XML) technical development projects, is nothing new. Like the other big agencies, we recognised the importance of news markup formats well before M. Louette appeared on the scene.

Without expressing an opinion on the fundamentals of the agency’s plans in this field, it is worth pointing out that a good part of the problem lies in organisational and training issues at least as much as in technology.

The fact that it was possible not very long ago for stories in English on the collapse of a bridge in the United States to be routed towards clients’ "Lifestyle and leisure" departments simply because the word contained in the text slug happens to be the name of a popular card game is an editorial, and not a technical issue.

And even if it may be possible to find a technical fix for such glitches, others are always waiting round the corner - such as when stories relating to a politician named Ségolène Royal find themselves routed towards the "Human interest - royal families" basket due to her surname.

Similarly, the fact that management says it has been charmed by a number of companies which have concentrated all their editorial services on huge open space areas does not necessarily mean that such a lay-out is appropriate for AFP.

It is to say the least paradoxical that in the age of computer networks, XML mark-up systems and a worldwide grid of bureaus, management can seriously assert that we can only coordinate our services by grouping them together in the same physical space!

If that is the case, maybe we should also repatriate all our regional centres from Washington, Hong Kong, Nicosia and Montevideo to Paris (or to Bangalore?), and hire ourselves an editorial room the size of Grand Central Station!

Of course we are not taken in by all this. If the idea of moving out of our headquarters building is in the air, it is because our current management and its friends in the "impecunious" French government (to use Pierre Louette’s adjective) would like to see an AFP stripped of all of its services except from the editorial ones, with low-cost outsourced administration and technical departments.

We also know that the need to finance the "4XML" development plan is not the main reason for the planned change in our statutes, because the finance for it is already provided for in the new contract with the French government, which on paper at least is unconnected to the Louette plan.

No: what our management is looking for is to have a free hand to push ahead with a raft of new "high-tech" developments. Which is why it is worth taking a look at its actual record to date.

2: Is Team Louette Competent?

Even supposing that the reforms proposed by Pierre Louette take place, can we count on him and his management team to lead us reliably towards the brave new world he depicts, in which subscription income that has been lost from both the French state and French media will be more than made up for by wild and wonderful high-tech developments, featuring 3-D blogs and animated graphics that can also run the coffee machine?

A few real-life examples may serve as a guide.

The "Deadline" news quiz (http://apps.facebook.com/deadline), launched at considerable cost on Facebook via the Newzwag subsidiary (http://www.newzwag.com/) in San Francisco, is clearly a flop. Its organisers soon dropped the possibility offered by Facebook of displaying the average number of players per day, because the figures were too embarrassing. They therefore opted for showing the monthly figures; at the time of writing this data, pitilessly calculated by the Facebook interface, has fallen below 1,000 per month, ie around 28 players per day. [Four months after this text was first published, in July 2009, AFP pulled the application off Facebook altogether].

On the basis of figures published in a New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/02/business/02game.html) about the kind of money that successful games developers can make via Facebook, our union has already calculated that the subsidiary must have been making, per month, just about enough advertising fees to pay for a single cup of coffee in a reasonably priced San Francisco café!

M. Louette may assert today that the service in question was not solely set up to garner advertising revenues: that was not at all how he presented it when it was launched. We are still waiting to find out how much this little adventure, which has taken us far away from our core skills, has cost.

The Citizenside user-generated content site (http://www.citizenside.com/), in which our management decided to buy a stake, is also not likely to yield a viable business model, even if one chooses to ignore the ethical and trade union issues involved in paying people for home-made journalism outside our agreed professional framework, not to speak of the perverse effects that "citizen journalism" is likely to have on our own photo and video services. Not forgetting the somewhat opaque commercial relationship that appears to exist between Citizenside and its shareholder.

It is also surprising to see some of the ads which decorate the home page of our partner: does a service which is headed for such a radiant future, backed up by a major news agency, really need to flash scantily-clad young women on its home page, offering "original encounters" under the brand name of "Purflirt"?

It is worth noting that our partner Getty, which is no slacker when it comes to ferreting out "people and celebrity" pictures, has just thrown in the sponge after buying a service similar to "Citizenside".

The "Relaxnews" project, with its humiliating slogan and video ad (http://www.afprelaxnews.com/), highlights another worrying tendency shown by our management. ("I relax with AFP: do you?"). Not forgetting the surprising results displayed in the "Opinionway" poll that accompanied the launch of the service. Why does AFP need to link its image to such weird and wonderful projects when we could simply restrict ourselves to our core activities of selling them our news, as we do with any other client? It’s not hard to understand why a company such as "Relaxnews" would want to link its name to that of a prestigious company like AFP - but what exactly is in it for us? And how much did that video clip and the strange opinion poll cost?

AFP’s institutional web site (http://www.afp.com/), which a modern CEO should be watching like a hawk, seems not to have been doing very well on M. Louette’s watch. It took a particularly bad turn for the worse in November 2008, just when a new lay-out was installed. The mistake was a simple but elementary one: with the exception of the default French-language set-up, all the new pages had different addresses from the old ones - but nobody thought to set up a rerouting mechanism to direct users from the old addresses to the new ones.

The result can be seen on "Google Trends", which displays traffic patterns at the world’s main web sites (http://trends.google.com/websites?q=afp.com&geo=all&date=all&sort=0).

The number of visitors to AFP’s main institutional web site plunged immediately after the new system was installed, and only started to pick up somewhat in later December, when an elementary re-routing mechanism was finally installed.

Due to this glitch, for almost a month everyone who tried to click on the one of the many links leading from AFP products displayed on the web, such as those on various Yahoo sites around the world, found themselves looking at a blank error page. Not much of a recommendation for a major world news agency with high-tech ambitions.

Getting in touch via the "AFP Mediawatch" site: At least the main AFP.COM site, once one has managed to find it, provides the general public, including potential clients, with a way of contacting the agency. That was not the case for the "AFP Mediawatch" blogging site during the first two years of its existence.

It is true that users could (and still can) leave comments that are displayed directly on the site. A feature which some visitors are more than happy to use to very publicly criticise certain aspects of the agency’s copy, and even to point out embarrassing typographical errors in certain blog posts which are apparently not always checked by their those in charge of the site. (Could this be a new model for AFP’s sub-editing functions: replace the present desks with members of the general public who correct our copy directly online?).

But like most web sites, AFP Mediawatch also offers users an e-mail address by which they can contact the company without also publishing their message for all to see. The trouble was, until January 2009, the address shown on the site didn’t work because nobody had got around to to creating it on the server!

This little problem of interactivity was pointed out very publicly by a number of users, who used the site’s comment interface for that purpose. This happened for example on January 27, 2009, shortly before the problem was finally fixed, two years and a month after the site was launched. (http://mediawatch.afp.com/?post/2009/02/14/Revers-de-la-medaille-%3A-le-laureat-du-World-Press-Photo-2008-cherche-du-travail#comments).

Trendy gadgets in the place of serious products, web sites that don’t work, style over substance: Is this the management team that’s supposed to be taking us into a radiant online future?


PS: The following are extracts from the interview given by Eric Scherer at the "World Editors’ Forum", (http://www.wan-press.org/wef), on October 20, 2008 and shown in the video published on YouTube.

Title: "Do you believe visual journalism could become as prominent as the written word in the future?"

Eric Scherer :

"I believe that a good picture, a good graphic or animated graphic, is worth a thousand, two thousand, three thousand words. "If you have a look at the New York Times animated graphics on the recent presidential election, you will not need to look at a text or a picture any more, because these graphics, these animations with Flash and a lot of data, will tell you the story much better, and much quicker, by the way, than a two-thousand or three-thousand word article... It’s very quick, very clear, it’s direct and addresses a lot of the issues that newspapers face today, meaning the fact that young people aren’t reading any more, the fact that you have an attention problem during the day, the fact that journalists will have to [develop] multimedia skills. "I’m not saying no text at all. I’m just saying that we were accustomed to seeing in journalism that first you have the story, the text. Even on TV we say "the story"; even for a photographer, you’re covering "a story". This story was text. And then you have pictures and video to illustrate the story, the text. I believe that very soon, text will take the second place, and you will have first pictures, video and animated graphics to tell the news, to explain it. With the amazing amount of data, public data and data coming from elsewhere, you will have very soon visualisation in three-D of this data and this will tell the story much quicker, much brighter, much better, than a huge article. Of course I am exaggerating a bit here, but this is a big trend, and this is a chance for journalism as well."

NB: an example of the kind of animated NYT graphic that Eric Scherer is referring to can be viewed at http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/politics/2008-election-overview/

SNJ-CGT-AFP, Paris March 16, 2009