The rise of the internet over the past decade has led many media analysts to either announce the death of traditional media, or claim its eventual demise. Traditional journalism, which is competing with internet blogs and other new media entities, appears to be in decline. Pierre Louette, Chairman and Chief Executive of Agence France-Presse (AFP), does not see ‘new media’ as a threat. He sees it as an opportunity for change, and one he intends to exploit to the fullest. Dramatic changes in information technology and communications have transformed the typical day, said Louette.
A couple of decades ago people used to wake up in the morning, listen to radio, buy a newspaper and then listen to TV news at night, whereas now news consumption is a 24/7 activity. From radio and television to internet, the shift is affecting all aspects of traditional media.
“We need to provide information throughout the day,” said Louette (pictured above).
In an attempt to capture the growing popularity of social networking sites, AFP has recently delved into the world of Facebook with a news quiz game. “If people prefer to communicate in a peer-to-peer way, and spend more time outside the general media frame, we need to find a way to engage them there. That is why we launched a widget project on Facebook.”
Users get to test their knowledge by answering a series of questions. They are then ranked and updates are sent to their peers to brag about it. This endeavor is intended to eventually drive traffic, and revenues, to destination sites owned exclusively by AFP or through joint ventures with its partners.
“Some minorities look at change as a threat. Change is always perceived as dangerous, but we need to change,” Louette said.
The world in which AFP operates has experienced a number of remarkable transformations over the years. The agency first produced text that was distributed by pigeons – today AFP’s 4,000 employees deliver content from more than 165 countries to thousands of clients worldwide, 24 hours a day.
More than 5,000 written dispatches in French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic along with 30 video stories, up to 3,000 photos and 80 news graphics are delivered everyday. “How can we compare today’s AFP that produces multimedia and widgets on Facebook with the AFP of 1835?” asked Louette. “This company needs to perpetuate the tradition of change.”
One way to measure the company’s success and ability to embrace the transformational changes in the industry is to look at its financial performance. (Although it is not a public company, AFP does releases some of its numbers.) Its turnover of 270 million euros (Dh1.4 billion) last year represents a 23 per cent increase from 2002, and the percentage of revenues it generates outside of France has doubled to 35 per cent from 1990. But the print industry in developed countries has been suffering for the past decade. “I talk to my French clients and they say they are losing money, advertising is going down and many newspapers are shutting down.” In other parts of the world, Louette says, this is not the case. In India, Asia and the Middle East, the sector is growing, as is AFP’s client base. “If you look at the Gulf, you see new TV stations, new newspapers, new magazines everywhere. We have new clients appearing globally,” he says.
In the Middle East, AFP has been a leader among its peers, which include United Kingdom-based Reuters and United States-based AP (Associated Press), especially due to its dedicated Arabic service. The agency is also demonstrating its commitment to the region by co-operating with clients and offering training programmes. The AFP Foundation, a subsidiary established last year, completed one of its first training programmes in Syria in 2007. During his visit to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Louette said government agencies and newspapers asked AFP to train nationals – the Emirates News Agency (Wam) said the two agencies agreed to boost “news exchange, technical training co-operation and exchange of expertise”.
“We intend to do more with the Foundation in the future, and I will soon send the general manager of the Foundation to the UAE and Saudi Arabia to follow-up on all the conversations I have had over the past few days,” added Louette.
The Gulf is one of the areas where AFP intends to increase its focus. Louette said business is growing steadily in the Middle East in general, and the Gulf is a major contributor to the company’s revenues. He wants to enhance the Arabic service, and expand and improve the quality of Arabic economic coverage – thus generating new revenues from a region focused on financial and economic news. While there are some definite constraints on reporting in the region, mostly in the form of government restrictions and self-censorship, Louette says AFP does not feel constrained. “There is sometimes a dialogue with several countries, but we don’t feel pressured not to write what we should write. As a news agency, we don’t editorialise too much, we give the facts.” Expanding coverage in the Middle East, especially when it comes to Arabic content, may seem to be a daunting task given the “talent crunch” that consultancies in the region highlight. But Louette has not experienced many problems attracting and retaining talent, even though some of the employees are deployed to very dangerous assignments in Iraq, Palestine and other conflict zones.
One of the reasons why AFP has been able to overcome this hurdle, according to the CEO, is because the agency hired many of its employees from Lebanon or Palestine “who are able to speak and write two or three languages perfectly”. As the company expands its operations and hires Arab business writers, Louette said it would probably tap the same talent pool again, or venture into the GCC. At a time of dramatic changes in the way people consume news, partnerships between Arab news agencies and global incumbents are becoming increasingly important.
The company has been criticised for being slow to adapt to the ever-changing content-delivery landscape, a characterisation Louette rejected. “We are a business-to-business company, which delivers content to clients. We don’t have afp.com as a website destination meant to generate revenue.”
The products the company delivers are tailor-made for many clients, and in 2007 almost 27 per cent of AFP’s revenues came from its multimedia offerings. “Yahoo! is now one of AFP’s top six clients in the world. Yahoo! buys and uses a lot of our products in several languages,” said Louette.
In one of the more prescient decisions at AFP, Louette launched the lawsuit against Google News in 2005 for copyright infringement. The agency alleged that the internet search engine included AFP headlines, news summaries and photographs without permission. The issue was subsequently settled, and Google agreed to pay for and properly attribute the content.
The debate over online content, and compensation, has not been completely resolved, and AFP may be credited with launching one of the opening salvos of a long war.
While the world is changing, and the challenges ahead are significant, Louette still seems to enjoy leading one of the world’s premier news agencies. “One of the joys of working at AFP is we are trying to provide the world with information, even under difficult circumstances.” He said the mission is to collect and distribute fair account of what is going on in the world. The information must be unbiased and uninfluenced by ideology.
Pierre Louette, 45, was appointed Chairman and CEO of AFP on December 13, 2005, after being elected unanimously by the board. Educated at France’s prestigious Ecole de Haute Administration (ENA), Louette served in the cabinet of former PM Edouard Balladur in the mid-1990s. He went on to work for French television, Havas Advertising and the luxury products giant LVMH, before joining AFP as managing director in 2003. AFP, the world’s oldest news agency established in 1835, delivers coverage of the events shaping our world from wars and conflicts to diplomacy, politics, entertainment, sport and the latest breakthroughs in health, science and technology. It manages its news operations from the headquarters in Paris and from regional centres in Washington, Hong Kong, Nicosia and Montevideo.
AFP to increase focus on Gulf clients