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European Papers Benefit in Cartoon Uproar

JAMEY KEATEN / Associated Press | February 10 2006

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! That street corner cry of yesteryear is resonating at some European publications that have enjoyed a boom in sales and Web traffic after printing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that have stoked outrage across the Islamic world.

Denmark's biggest-circulation broadsheet, Jyllands-Posten, triggered the controversy in September by publishing 12 cartoons of the prophet, including one showing his turban as a bomb. Its weekday circulation of about 154,000 hasn't moved much.

But for newspapers in France and Norway that reprinted the drawings with much international ado, sometimes in defense of free speech, the caricatures have become a profile boost and tonic for lackluster sales.

If there's a lesson, it's an old one: Controversy sells.

Mohamed Bechari, a vice president at the French Council of the Muslim Faith, France's largest Islamic organization, said he thinks French readers are buying up the newspapers out of "curiosity" _ not anti- Arab or anti-Muslim feeling.

"Here's some advice to those newspapers today facing ruin, bankruptcy or collapse: All you need do is insult Muslims and Islam, and sales will get hot as blazes," he told The Associated Press at a Paris conference Thursday on promoting dialogue between the West and the Muslim world, convened in response to the furor over the drawings.

Demonstrators in Syria, Lebanon and Iran have attacked Western embassies. Protests and boycotts of Danish goods erupted in numerous Arab and Islamic countries. Three days of riots across Afghanistan left 11 people dead.

France Soir's Feb. 1 issue with the drawings sold 40 percent more than the usual daily circulation, and executives are tantalized that the newspaper's souped-up profile could translate into long-term gains.

"Over time, it could change the brand image of France Soir ... it shows we're capable of running scoops _ and leading a battle for freedom of the press," circulation director Philippe Soing told the AP.

Satirical French weekly Charlie-Hebdo reprinted the drawings Wednesday, behind a cover page showing Muhammad with his head in his hands, crying and saying: "It's hard to be loved by idiots."

The paper quickly sold out all 160,000 copies of the issue _ 60,000 more than the typical weekly run _ and was printing another 160,000, spokeswoman Liliane Roudiere said.

Print sales at Norway's Magazinet, an Evangelical Christian newspaper, have been flat since it ran the drawings Jan. 10. But daily hits on its Web site have more than tripled, to about 800,000, said Vegard Kobberdal, a consultant for the thrice-weekly paper.

Spanish daily El Mundo, which posted some of the images on its Web site, said it was impossible to determine which news item was affecting sales.

The rise of the Internet, rising competition for advertising money and the advent of free dailies across Europe have meant tough times for many newspapers.

France Soir, a legendary daily whose circulation hovered around a million a day in the late 1960s, is now in financial straits, and the paper is up for sale.

"If we wanted to use this to save France Soir, we'd need a story like this every day, and I dare hope that there won't be," editor-in-chief Arnaud Levy, with a bodyguard in tow, told the AP at the conference.

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