In the weeks following the creation of Le Monde in the harsh winter of 1944, the offices were so cold that the 30 journalists had to keep their coats and gloves on as they worked to assure the new paper's survival. Six decades later, the office is warm enough for shirt-sleeves, but as the paper begins its 60th birthday celebrations, a different kind of chill hangs in the air.

Le Monde is experiencing an acute financial crisis. Circulation has dropped, advertising is scant and the newspaper has announced it is seeking 100 voluntary redundancies - about 35 of whom are expected to be journalists. Some 100 jobs have already been cut from the printing operation.

Executives at the paper emphasise that Le Monde is not alone in its plight. All of France's quality press is suffering, with circulation shrinking across the board. The explosion of easily available sources of free news caught all the papers off guard; improved internet news sites and two new, very successful, free papers are enticing more and more readers away from their daily paper.

Even given the difficult climate, Le Monde is in trouble. The paper has entered its third consecutive loss-making year, losing a total of about €50m (£34m). Circulation dropped by 4% in 2003 and is expected to fall another 3.5% in 2004. Although it remains the country's best selling paper, with 380,000 sales daily, analysts predict Le Figaro will overtake it in the next few months.

Executives are contemplating drastic changes, such as looking at switching the paper from an afternoon to a morning publication. There is a growing sense that the afternoon format is anachronistic, a remnant of an era when people watched less television and wanted something to read in the evening. Editors are also debating shrinking the size of the newspaper by half, to match the easily manageable A4 format of the free papers.

"Unfortunately we are passing through a very delicate period as we try to put our affairs back in order, so we are in a position to relaunch in 2005 in a stronger and dynamic fashion," editor Jean-Marie Colombani said.

"The voluntary redundancy programme is indispensible in the current climate to relieve our expenditure. There's nothing strange about losing journalists in a period of such crisis."

But staff were not expecting the announcement. "It came as an electric shock. We've never seen anything on this scale before and it was the first time people were made aware of the gravity of the situation," a senior journalist - who did not want to be named - said. "The mood in the office is very morose."

Mr Colombani has been blamed for expanding the group too rapidly in the 1990s, buying up stakes in magazines and regional papers and investing heavily in the internet site. The paper does not have a wealthy owner to rescue it, unlike Le Figaro, which has recently been bought by the billionaire military industrialist Serge Dassault; 53% of Le Monde is owned by internal shareholders - employees and staff investment funds.

Part of Le Monde's problems are tied up with peculiar logistical obstacles which make production and distribution extremely expensive. Apparently minor irritations, like the gradual disappearance of newspaper kiosks in Paris, have a huge impact on sales. The business of selling newspapers has become very unprofitable and many of the traditional green stands which house paper vendors in the capital are shut. "You have to walk to find a copy of Le Monde in Paris," Mr Colombani said.

Distribution unions are militant and prone to striking, the postal service has just increased the price of delivering the paper and the new model of the TGV, France's express train, no longer has rooom to deliver Le Monde to the provinces. All of which means that most people outside Paris cannot buy the paper until the day after publication, when it is beginning to feel out of date. This was acceptable when there were few other news sources available, but now people have a wider choice.

Historically, French papers have taken more revenue from the cover price than from advertising, and at €1.20 (85p), Le Monde feels expensive. Daniel Schneiderman, a media commentator for the rival paper Libération and a former Le Monde employee, said: "People are now stopping to think, 'Why the hell should I bother to spend €1.20 on Le Monde when I've heard this information on the evening news the night before, on the radio this morning and when I can get all this news for free on the internet anyway?' The paper has to do far more to convince its readers that it really adds value."

France has long had a dwindling appetite for newspapers and between 1972 and 2001, sales shrunk by 40%. Only 17% of the population read them regularly, with most people favouring the weekly magazines instead, and there are just 167 sold in France for every 1,000 people, compared with 393 in Britain. But there is something about Le Monde that particularly alienates potential readers.

The design remains dense, alleviated by only the occasional photograph. Articles are long and the front page contains a heavyweight essay every day. Edwy Plenel, the paper's executive editor, said recently that the problem was it was "considered to be a paper for the elite, a quality newspaper of reference, while in reality it is a mass market newspaper." An internal document leaked recently said it had been criticised by its own management for its lack of "accessibility, rigour and quality".

The paper is still struggling to restore its credibility after the publication last year of the best-selling The Hidden Face of Le Monde, an aggressive investigation questioning the paper's ethics. "For 20 years it was the bible - if something was in Le Monde then it was true. Now that feeling that Le Monde is sacrosanct has gone," said Mr Schneiderman, who was sacked after writing a column agreeing with some of the book's conclusions. "People read it in a more cynical way."

Mr Colombani said the book had been damaging but its impact was impossible to quantify. "It was an attack designed to destroy us - and it gave people a general licence to kill. Everyone now feels like they are authorised to criticise us. It's become good form at dinner parties to do us down," he said. "There is a particular feeling of irritation towards Le Monde. Does that affect the sales? Certainly."

The government is so concerned about the plight of the country's press that it is considering making 2005 the year of the newspaper to try to rekindle French affection for the papers. A programme to encourage young people - only 1% of whom say they get their news from papers - to start buying papers has already been announced.

But Le Monde has to take action to resolve its own problems. Staff point at a lack of dynamism within the paper. "This is an exhausting job - days begin at 6.30am and often we're still in the office until 10pm. Over 10 years under one editor, one team, we've got tired. We need a change," one journalist said.

Mr Colombani is due to outline his vision for the paper at the end of this year. "Faced with the free papers and the internet revolution, we have to try to redefine the purpose of quality printed newspaper. We have to reassess our editorial priorities," Mr Colombani said. "The formula we use was created 10 years ago. It's healthy and natural to think about changing things."

French national newspaper sales

Paper Description Sales Change

2002/3 to 2003/4

L'Equipe Sports daily 347,942 +11.65%

Le Monde Left-leaning afternoon paper 337,712 -4.26%

Le Figaro Rightwing daily 334,749 -1.75%

Aujourd'hui Daily tabloid 150,788 +1.96%

France Libération Leftwing daily 149,218 - 0.03%

Les Echos Business paper 116,359 +0.49%

La Croix Catholic daily 95,086 +3.63%

La Tribune business paper 78,520 -0.3%

France Soir Downmarket tabloid 67,506 -3.92%

L'Humanité Communist daily 47,670 +0.6%

Source: Le Monde

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