Balance of Power

Jean Schwoebel on the miracle Le Monde wrought

Context clues: In 1951, Le Monde, in France, became the first publication to institute a shared management plan with editorial employees. By 1970, journalists elsewhere were campaigning for similar arrangements—employees of Le Figaro, also in France; members of a “free communications group,” in Britain; and others around the world. The following appeared in the Summer 1970 issue.

For most of a century, technology has been changing the physical profile of journalism. Now, almost unnoticed, a companion revolution has begun. Still embryonic but clearly irreversible, it has to do with who within a journalistic institution can raise basic questions about it and receive meaningful answers; the extent to which journalists shall be free to exercise professional skills within corporate structures they do not own; and, ultimately, the question of whether distinguished, sophisticated journalism can thrive in an organization in which fundamental editorial arrangements are determined by fiat. In the interview below, Jean Schwoebel, urbane, thoughtful, diplomatic editor of Le Monde and architect of its pioneering staff-controlled management structure, describes his historic experience in Europe. The report following it discusses the increasingly significant “reporter power” movement in the US.

The Society of Journalists is the vehicle through which staff control of Le Monde is exercised. How did it begin and why?

Two factors produced the Society of Journalists. We had the historic revolution in France; we have this tradition. Then there was the liberation of France in World War II. The Occupation was very hard. Many papers had accepted the law imposed by Occupation forces. So at the end of the war there was a general idea that the press was not valuable, because it had collaborated with the Germans. So there was a law after the liberation to expropriate—confiscate—properties of editors of the old press, and their estates were put in charge of national societies. The idea was that we were to create a new press. At the end of the war we had big illusions and big hopes, and we thought we could keep the press free of economic control. We could see that freedom of the press must not only be freedom from oppression by the State; the State in a way is an expression of the democratic majority. To a certain degree, the press was in control of political parties, with a degree of protection against central power, but we also could see that economic progress depends more and more on very large investments and freedom of expression is given to people who can assemble formidable capital. So in a modern society freedom of the press is not only a question of structures which give freedom to journalists in relation to political powers, but also to economic powers. In the Resistance that idea was commonly accepted. That was a very revolutionary period. Of course, we live in a capitalist country, so these ideas were progressively abandoned. More and more the “new” owners have changed their minds, and they are exactly like their predecessors. Except for one—Le Monde.

Le Monde was directed by Hubert Beuve-Méry, who had been asked to found a newspaper with the property of the old Le Temps. He had a very high conception of the press. When he was obliged for many reasons to submit his resignation in 1951 there was a rebellion on the editorial board. The editorial staff was a very strong force because Le Monde practiced a very high level of journalism, and its quality depended very much on us. Influential elements in France—the universities and the elite—were waiting for a declaration from us. The thought that Le Monde would have any other direction was a kind of scandal. So we were in a good position with the owners, and in 1951 we obtained the first agreement—it was not the last—entering into ownership.

Why did the editorial staff insist on sharing ownership?

If you want to exert influence in a capitalist country there is only one way, and that is to have part of the ownership; the rest is without value. It was a good time to ask for part of the ownership. The capital of the country was very low. The Liberation could take over such estates. It was something of a special situation.

In Europe the status of journalists is very low because we work in a commercial framework. And what is the law of commerce? It is to make maximum profit. And what is the way to maximum profit? It is to have a maximum of receipts and a minimum of expenses. If there is any reduction it is in expenses. So in general the papers of France have very low-paid journalists. Because they don’t pay them, of course, the journalists are not of the quality required in view of their profession. We say that is a stupidity and a danger to the future. We have the conviction that in modern societies progress depends on the high quality of citizens. To have a high quality of citizens you must have a high quality of education. It is a very common thing now to learn to read. Every country knows we must free the people of illiteracy. We must move to a higher level now. We must have citizens able to choose representative people in any field of activity. And they can do so only if the citizens know the real facts—the factors of every situation. If you don’t have that it is a caricature of democracy. That is why we say that only a society which has highly qualified journalists can progress. We contend that present structures do not offer to citizens the guarantee of a high quality of journalism. And so this is an idea which is more and more being adopted by journalists in France.

What are the prospects for shared management on other French newspapers?

Thirty-two societies have been created, within all the big papers of France. They have been created in the hope of having the same arrangement we have at Le Monde. They have been opposed systematically by the managers. So they have federated, and I am president of this federation, to try to act in the political field, to act on the Deputies, the Senators, the Government. We were on the point last year of winning the battle to pass a law. We had many friends. DeGaulle was playing his cards politically. As with Algeria he tried to make compromises. He was not prepared to go as far as we were.

Was a bill introduced?

One of the main reasons why deGaulle fell was this question. All the conservatives were fanatically opposed to any kind of participation, because in France there is a very old tradition of management authority. In a way I think the United States is much more advanced on the question of cooperation and work in teams. That tradition does not exist in France, and that in my view is a paramount question. If we don’t change on the question of the authority of middle age, we cannot change much else. We have a very strong concentration of that kind. So a commission was created by the Government to study our ideas, but with the departure of deGaulle and the reaction of the managers and owners the issue has been tabled.

If deGaulle had not fallen would you have had a realistic chance?

It would have been difficult, but we were on our way. But we will have our day. Already there is a tendency to come back to our conception because it is necessary for the future, and because it has had an impact on countries around us. I have been to Germany, to Italy, to England, to Belgium, and to Spain, and I see everywhere the same state of humiliation, of dissatisfaction among journalists over feudalistic power.

In fact, at Le Monde we have succeeded not only in quality of information but in quality of administration. And that is very important. We did not surprise the industry on the first point, but on the second, we have a profitable enterprise, and the discipline is exceptional because we are conscious of the important questions of what is best for the structure, for the organization, for its ethics. But the daily administration we do not determine at all.

“If you want to exert influence in a capitalist country there is only one way, and that is to have part of the ownership.”

How successful is Le Monde as a business?

Le Monde has high profits. It has a modern mechanical plant. Its circulation is high. These are the reasons why our example has been followed in Germany. We were able to give them all the materials and concepts. We already had twenty years of experience—and not abstract experience. It was experience in the responsibilities of a major enterprise. We know the realities of an enterprise. That gives us real force. That is why in Italy last year I was invited to speak to Catholic journalists, and two months later, to all the journalists of Italy.

You have named newspapers and a magazine. Could this apply to television also?

Television is another problem. The Society of Journalists was contacted two years ago about TV, but the Department of Television has been in chaos. So there is no more a Society of Television. The TV situation is very difficult, because it is in a sense directed by the State.

How does the Society of Journalists function?

We are not like the American Newspaper Guild. We decided first to be a “commercial” society. Now we are a civil society. We do not want to operate like capitalists. We do not want part of the profits. We want part of the ownership not for the profits—that is for the investors—but only for the juridical rights the property gives. As soon as we leave the paper we have no more rights.

The Society of Journalists has an assembly and a council of administration. We try to unite the journalists in a common conception. To unite journalists is very difficult. You succeed only if you pick very solid, very reasonable arguments. And in my view we have united on very sensible, responsible problems.

There has been an epidemic of criticism of the news media in the US. If your success were duplicated there, might there be fewer such criticisms?

We have had no relations with American journalists on this question. But in my view we are all, of whatever country, journalists, with common responsibilities. I think that in the future the journalism profession will be most important. It is not a question of nationalism—of nations. We must have a solidarity among journalists to improve their status. Political men may be very authentic men, but they are dependent in large degree on the man who elects them, and it is on journalists’ courage and quality that we depend to raise the quality of citizens. Our profession must push the legislative man to courage, because he is so dependent. So in a way we have to sustain him.

Since Le Monde is an elite newspaper, should we assume by analogy that the most likely place for your idea to take root in the US would be on an elite or quality newspaper?

Very possibly it could happen someday at the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, and maybe the Washington Post. But I know perfectly well that conditions are different in America. You in the States are advanced in something which is necessary—efficiency, energy, and so on. But maybe you are slow to realize that the real cause of chaos in the future involves a dimension beyond efficiency.

Your journalists are much dependent on a society which still believes much in profitability—which is necessary. I think the view of profits, of commerce, in American society in a certain measure represents progress; in another way, not. I believe sincerely that it is much more difficult for American journalists than for us because in such a society as yours it is not regarded as a scandal that economic processes control the press. In European societies it is looked on as a scandal that economic processes control the press. In my view, control of the press by economic processes is completely anti-American.

In ten years I am sure this philosophy will have taken root in America. I say that not only journalists have a right, but clerks or workers have a right to press for their rights. But journalists are different. We are the defenders of truth. Now progress is a question of dialogue. We are at the end of a certain kind of journalism—of magisterial journalism—and of a certain kind of journalist: the magisterial journalist. And we must accept the dialogue.

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Jean Schwoebel was the first president of the Society of Journalists.

TOP IMAGE: Le Monde office, Paris, 1969; Photo by Roger Viollet via Getty Images