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Death of a newspaper

By Nic Maclellan.

The closure of New Caledonia’s only daily newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes highlights the commercial and political challenges facing media across the Pacific.

The death of a newspaper strikes hard — and not only when you’re one of its employees. “Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes was an institution in New Caledonia,” Thierry Kremer, secretary of the paper’s works council, tells me. “Its closure is obviously a great blow for the employees, but also an enormous loss for the population of New Caledonia.”

Kremer and I met the day after the announcement of the decision to close a daily newspaper that has been published for more than fifty years. Staff were still coming to terms with the news, uncertain whether they would be paid their final wages and benefits.

It’s true that New Caledonia, a French Pacific dependency of 274,000 people, has a vibrant media landscape, with a range of weekly magazines, two TV stations and many commercial radio outlets. But the death of its sole daily newspaper comes at a crucial time, with supporters and opponents of independence debating future relations with France.

Founded in 1971, Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes soon saw off its only daily competitor, the venerable France Australe, which closed its doors after ninety years in 1979. To begin with, the new paper was a partisan broadsheet, promoting the interests of local business owners and campaigning against independence from France. It made little pretence of impartiality during the armed conflict that divided New Caledonia in the mid-1980s, denigrating indigenous Kanak and editorialising in favour of the anti-independence party, Rally for New Caledonia in the Republic.

The paper was bought in 1987 by Groupe Hersant Média, France’s largest media conglomerate at the time. A decade later, after the death of founder Robert Hersant, a financial crisis forced Hersant to sell off many media outlets at fire-sale prices, including Les Nouvelles. In 2013, three local business figures formed the Melchior Group to take over the paper and affiliated businesses. Melchior’s majority owner was New Caledonian businessman Jacques Jeandot, with mining magnate Charles Montagnat and former supermarket owner Charles Lavoix sharing the remaining 41 per cent.

“Hersant sold the paper for global reasons related to its media group and the great difficulties it was facing in Europe,” explains Kremer. “That wasn’t the case in New Caledonia, where it was making a lot of money. At the time, Mr Jeandot had been considering setting up a newspaper in competition with Les Nouvelles, so he seized the opportunity by investing in the paper.” It was an investment driven by the heart, adds Kremer, who believes Jeandot never made much money from the paper.

The Melchior Group also owned printing presses, a range of giveaway magazines, Les Editions du Caillou publishing house and radio station NRJ-Nouvelle-Calédonie.

From the start, the new owners faced significant competition, including from French government–owned TV and radio stations. Many advertisers moved onto social media, and partisan media organisations received subsidies from the administrations in New Caledonia’s three provinces. A long delay in upgrading the Les Nouvelles website and investing in new technology contributed to a loss of readership.

The Covid-19 pandemic added to the financial pressures. Advertising slumped further and costs rose, prompting a hiring and investment freeze and an effort to reduce expenses by refusing to replace departing staff. Then in late 2022 the company decided to drop the paper’s print edition. It sold off its largest printing presses and went completely online at the end of December, placing a question mark over the future of other Melchior publications, like the weekly Le Gratuit, which used the daily’s print distribution network.

These dramatic changes reverberated across New Caledonia. The rural Northern Province and the outlying Loyalty Islands Province relied on the paper and smaller local media such as Caledonia TV, the monthly magazine Le Pays and occasional newssheets issued by the provincial governments. For Pierre-Chanel Tutugoro, mayor of the east coast town of Ponerihouen, one of Les Nouvelles’s strengths was its local inserts and regular reports from the provinces and rural towns. “For local mayors,” he says, “it was an important way to reach out to the community. Now that’s gone and it’s unfortunate.”

Tutugoro, who is also secretary-general of the largest independence party, Union Calédonienne, believes the decision to halt the print edition undercut the economics of Les Nouvelles. “They went online, but that effectively meant they were giving it away,” he says. “Even in the deep valleys in the mountains near Hienghène or in Ponerihouen where people have 4G, you could get the news each day at 6am. People who had a subscription were sharing the online version on social media.”

The shift to digital-only was too little, too late. On the afternoon of 10 March, less than three months after the print edition closed, Melchior’s owners announced that the company would file for liquidation. Supporters of the group’s 120 employees rallied in front of the Les Nouvelles offices, but the court announced the liquidation of the company a week later.

“It’s a brutal procedure,” the paper’s executive director, Yves Delauw, told local media. “We have to do things very quickly, because we could not make this announcement several weeks in advance and continue working in this context. From the moment the court pronounces the liquidation, everything goes very quickly.”

The thirty-strong branch of the Société des Journalistes at Les Nouvelles deplored “the refusal of management to listen to the proposals and suggestions that we have made in recent years.” Management’s reluctance to take on new journalists and invest in new technology for the digital edition had led, staff believed, to a downward spiral.

While commercial considerations drove the decision, the complex politics of French colonialism was also a factor in the demise of Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes.

In the early years of publication, Les Nouvelles and the French government broadcaster RFO were the main sources of daily news for New Caledonians. Both were fiercely critical of the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste, or FLNKS, a coalition of pro-independence parties.

In 1985, faced with these dominant conservative voices, the independence movement sought support from trade unions in Australia, New Zealand and various Pacific island nations to establish a community station, Radio Djiido. Together with the short-lived magazine Bwenando, Djiido was the only outlet to provide alternative views during the violent clashes of the 1980s.

Decades later, Radio Djiido still operates on a shoestring, broadcasting news, talkback, feature interviews and music. Commercial radio stations and government broadcaster NC1ère, meanwhile, continue to air more conservative views. Coverage of competing perspectives has certainly improved in recent years, but most media outlets still editorialise against the FLNKS and oppose ending French colonial rule.

“Even though Les Nouvelles was controlled by Mr Jeandot, Mr Lavoix and Mr Montagnat — all businessmen who might be described as loyalists to the French Republic — we remained a neutral newspaper,” says Thierry Kremer. The paper’s openness was its “added value,” he goes on, “but it created problems, in that you need to be aligned to a political group or party in order to receive major subsidies.”

Independence activists don’t agree with that assessment of the paper’s strengths. While journalists like Yann Mainguet sought to maintain comprehensive coverage of statements from FLNKS leaders, many activists scoff at the notion that Les Nouvelles was an impartial voice. They haven’t forgotten the appointment of Fabrice Rouard, a former spin doctor at Noumea Town Hall, a bastion of the loyalist parties, as editor-in-chief in December 2013. Rouard notoriously told staff that the flag of Kanaky, the symbol of the independence movement and the Kanak people, should not appear in photos on the front page of the paper.

“Fundamentally, this country lacks balanced media,” says long-time independence leader Roch Wamytan. “In terms of the written press, it’s completely unbalanced. When you look at Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes, you can’t say that it supported us!” In radio, by contrast, he sees more open debate. “We have a radio station that supports independence, and the other parties have stations like RRB. But for newspapers and magazines, there’s no such balance. There are monthly or quarterly newsletters, but the independence movement has never been able to find the finance to create a daily here.”

In his role as president of the Congress, New Caledonia’s legislature, Wamytan quickly issued a statement of concern about the decision to close Les Nouvelles altogether. French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc was more measured: “This emblematic daily newspaper has provided information to the population of New Caledonia for more than half a century. Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes benefited from various assistance to the press, particularly during the Covid pandemic, which, alas, was not enough to maintain activity.”

For staff members like Thierry Kremer, these sentiments provide little comfort. “We didn’t receive any support from the Southern Province, the Northern Province or the Government of New Caledonia, even when we were in some difficulty,” he says. “It is my personal opinion that, for them, it’s not a bad thing that we’ve closed. There are now people speaking out to help us as employees, but they weren’t there when we were in trouble.”

The paper’s journalists express anger or disdain at the muted response of New Caledonia’s political elite. As the Société des Journalistes noted in its formal statement, “The loss of the only daily press title in the country, with an indifferent response from politicians and institutions, is a disaster for democracy, in particular in view of the electoral deadlines awaiting New Caledonians.”

Les Nouvelles’s demise comes at a time when New Caledonians need accurate information more than ever. After three referendums on self-determination between 2018 and 2021, political leaders are now debating whether to replace the 1998 Noumea Accord, an agreement that has governed politics, society and the economy for the past twenty-five years. Time is short to strike a deal before the next provincial and congressional elections, scheduled for May 2024.

Three separate delegations travelled to Paris in mid-April for bilateral discussions with French prime minister Élisabeth Borne and interior and overseas minister Gérald Darmanin. Despite the positive dialogue, fundamental differences remain over the way forward.

Embedded in the French constitution, the Noumea Accord can only be changed by a three-fifths majority in a joint meeting of the French National Assembly and the Senate — a level of support that seems unlikely at the moment. President Emmanuel Macron lost his majority in the National Assembly in France’s June 2022 legislative elections. His recent decision to force through changes to pensions and the retirement age has crippled his standing in public opinion polls and eroded his political capital.

The independence movement, rejecting this timetable, has so far refused to engage in trilateral negotiations with the French state and loyalist anti-independence parties. Union Calédonienne’s Pierre-Chanel Tutugoro says the FLNKS wants Paris to agree to a new treaty and a clear timetable for a transition to an independent and sovereign state.

“Our proposed treaty highlights issues related to interdependence with the French state, during a period of transition after independence,” he said. “This will ensure there is no rupture with France. We’re following in the footsteps set by our forebears, seeking independence with full sovereignty, but with ongoing, albeit different, ties with France.”

Within this complex debate, Tutugoro says the closure of the daily newspaper makes it difficult to share accurate information across the community. “If we do nothing,” he says, “we leave our community at the mercy of social media, where many people get their news. But on social media, there’s not much filtering of ‘fake news’ or political posturing or outright lying — so it’s irresponsible to rely on it.”

Not surprisingly, Thierry Kremer agrees. “I hope that, for New Caledonia’s sake, a daily paper can be revived,” he says. “But would such a paper be as neutral as we were? The problem is that there will soon be provincial elections, which will be very important. I don’t understand why the French government didn’t step in, given the political context and the need to maintain neutral, accurate information in the territory.”

What’s next? The Les Nouvelles website and photo archive are a historical resource that must be preserved, but they are also a valuable asset as the liquidators seek to pay off staff, shareholders and creditors. (Disclosure: as a long-time subscriber to the newspaper I am technically a creditor, though I’m not holding my breath awaiting a small refund for the balance of my annual subscription.)

Les Nouvelles is gone, but in an increasingly polarised political context, new media may yet emerge. Local conservative politicians and business figures are discussing new projects, with conservative magazines like Actu.nc and Demain en Nouvelle-Calédonie looking at the economics of daily publishing.

Last year, businessman and former right-wing politician Didier Leroux made a significant investment in the radio station Océane FM, as the basis of a new TV station. The new channel, dubbed NC9, would likely receive significant financial subsidies from New Caledonia’s Southern Province under its president Sonia Backès, leader of the loyalist bloc in New Caledonia’s Congress. Backès also serves as citizenship minister in the French government in Paris. With the audiovisual sector under the control of the French state rather than the government of New Caledonia, approval for editorial outlets opposed to independence will likely receive a sympathetic hearing. Commerce and politics are transforming the media landscape.

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