- The legacy structures in the French media present bureaucratic rigidity. This makes it harder for entrepreneurs and startups to achieve financial sustainability and growth.
- Unlike the UK, the French media system has an underlying and sometimes antagonistic sense of ‘them and us’ between old and new media fuelled in part by central leadership.
- There is experimentation building media products around citizen journalism. AgoraVox is one of the most prominent European examples of a citizen journalism site, and one of the premier platforms in France for citizen journalism.
- There are major players far outpunching their weight by cashing in on their legacy influence and reach. Ironically, the industry is structured in such a way that these legacy players offer a lifeline to fledgling media entrepreneurs.
- Startup journalist sites can cash in on a civic role with a rallying call: from the tagline of website and print-magazine Causer.fr ‘especially if you don’t agree’ to the ‘alternative news’ of Les Nouvelles News and the civically engaged BastaMag, online journalism has given a voice to a range of sites wanting to fight causes and be heard.
- Several have taken the decision not to use advertising to finance their editorial initiatives, as in Italy.
- The case studies include: Rue89, MediaPart, AgoraVox, Citizenside, Dijon- scope, ThisFrenchLife.
There has been a notable energy towards the launch of online-only media entities, known as pure players, and experimentation with a variety of formats since 2005. Several sites pride themselves on independent quality journalism that rejects the status quo – even one might say cashing in on a counter-culture that stands for independent, investigative journalism. However the economics remains a challenge. Against a backdrop of suffocating bureaucracy many media entrepreneurs are stifled. Legacy media looms large not just in their access to lucrative government funding (the most generous of all European countries) but also intangibly. Overall, startups are still feeling their way financially and sustainability relies on a mix and match approach.
The media landscape
France has more politicised public service broadcasters than many other European media, stronger commercial television operators and a limited circulation and often elite-orientated press which can be defined as a “polarised pluralist” media system, common to the Mediterranean (Hallin & Mancini 2004). It is a national media market in that most start-ups are catering first and foremost to the native tongue (although social media such as Twitter and Facebook are increasingly democratising the reach beyond physical frontiers, as seen in Spain). Vision beyond national frontiers has largely been stayed. In the final session at LeWeb conference in Paris, in December 2008, organiser Loic Le Meur proved the point by demonstrating none of the attendants had heard of Vente-Privee – a major Groupon-style flash sales start-up.
Yet France is a large and technologically advanced mature media market. It has a population of 65 million and a healthy interest in media and tech with 62% of the population using the Internet everyday, the tenth highest in Europe (Eurostat 2012). Online advertising expenditure in 2011 topped 1,212m euros (Zenith Optimedia) 19.8% of the market share (the fastest growing sector year on year). As elsewhere, Google attracts a majority of search advertising and is the most popular web destination.
The French newspaper industry is dependent on a complex combination of state subsidies and co-operative forms of production and distribution. It consists of a string of Parisian titles with national distribution but limited circulation and a larger regional press with broader reach. No country spends more money to preserve the freedom and the plurality of its press: €1.2bn in 2008 (taking into account all forms of aid); that is 12% of the sector’s total revenue to the point that even hardened “pure players” debate the potential need to accept government handouts (Filoux 2009). MediaPart faced criticism for being a mere replication of offline when it accepted a 200,000€ donation towards its total 5 million revenues.
Indeed there has been a long-lasting institutional crisis afflicting the French press, with considerable losses to circulation and ad revenues (Antheaume 2010). In many territories, regional and local press are monopolies born from legacy consolidations dating back to the 50s and largely mirror electoral and administrative boundaries (Le Floch 1997; Lerner 1977; Tetu 1995). Many have struggled to adapt to the new media landscape with broadcasters such as TF1 and France Televisions, rather than print businesses, leading the way online. Newsrooms have largely resisted integration as is the norm in Anglo-Saxon publishing. And the regional structure’s attitude to online and innovation has largely been typified by a “purely marketing approach” of shovelware (Smyrnaios et al 2011).
The French media system has an underlying sense of “them and us” between old and new media fuelled in part by central leadership. The 2009 Sarkozy government bailout was for Big Media providing 200 million euro over a three-year period. But many continue to struggle. 65-year-old Paris Liberal daily Le Monde was saved from bankruptcy only when it was bought by billionaire investors in 2010. The industry is rife with a “who you know” mentality. If you register a foundation in France you are obliged to guarantee a seat on the board to a representative of the government. “The French press works much like the US museum industry. A curator doesn’t aim at pleasing visitors. They bring in less than 10% of revenues. The demand to be satisfied is the donors.” (Kayser-Bril 2008)
The intangible influence looms larger still. Key movers and shakers in the start-up scene are “news men” of the legacy media. Several of the staff behind MediaPart and Rue89 worked at major titles including Le Monde and Liberation. And when the Huffington Post came to launch a French version in 2012, it sought a partnership with the most prominent legacy media in the country, Le Monde Group. As former US president George W Bush said once: “The problem with the French is that they have no word for entrepreneur.” Even Filoux laments “By every measure, France is lagging behind the rest of the industrial world in terms of technological innovation” and, commenting on a 2010 government Creation and the Internet report on media business models that France, “as a country, is unable to adopt once and for all a sanely regulated pro-business attitude”.
There are major players far outpunching their weight by cashing in on their legacy influence and reach. Ironically, the industry is structured in such a way that these legacy players offer a lifeline to fledgling media entrepreneurs: the financially struggling analysis and news site Rue89 was bought by Le Nouvel Observatoire in late 2011; since 2007 Citizenside has benefitted from Agence France Presse holding a minor share; AgoraVox is made tenable by its place within the umbrella Cybion consultancy agency. Parisian-based YouTube challenger Dailymotion received 58.8million euro when France Telecom’s Orange bought 49% of the company. It works with partners around the world, including Al Jazeera, CNN and Warner.
Table 1: Top ten news websites June 2011 compared to startups
|Website||Monthly unique users|
|Le Nouvel Observateur||5,102,000|
That is not to say innovation is thwarted entirely. On the contrary. There is an increasing sense that professional ambition and new innovative practices – having been stifled for many years – are ready to drive change. Paris represents one of the most exciting laboratories for the future of journalism in Europe. Quartier du Sentier in the second district is the hub of the entrepreneurial community, where you will find La Cantine, the main co-working space. It is home to dozens of media entrepreneurs carving out new boundaries for what it means to “do” news. The annual LeWeb conference and the creation of media and tech incubators Le Camping have put the country on the map.
There is evidence of successful diversification into blogging by national titles. Coulisses des Bruxelles was launched in 2005 by Liberation journalist Jean Quatremer and became the first blog to win the Louise Weiss journalism prize. The idea for the site came from the paper’s web editor. It soon gained notoriety beyond French borders. “I thought no one would care but it became an overnight success because it got people talking. You have to find a niche and be part of a community.” (Quatremer 2011)
Pressure is also mounting on the need for change by organisations such as Le Spiil, the independent online press syndicate. They work to study and represent the interests of online-only news players and their professional interests, and campaigned for two years for online news producers to pay the same VAT rates as printed press, a heavily reduced 2.1%, instead of 19.6% (a similar plight to that faced in Finland). There is renewed zest in filling gaps in the media market left by receding legacy media with new and timely products. In all, a new wave of journalistic online start-up is aiming to “break with traditional paradigms of French journalism and the French media business” in what Bruno coins a Nouvelle Vague of start-up (Bruno et al 2012). Meta-journalistic commentary is also profiting from open blogging platforms, as seen on L’Observatories des Medias. And the ePresse digital consortium in France has as its objective to build a digital kiosk (web and mobile apps), that will allow the French press to sell its content, while retaining control over pricing, marketing and customer data. ePresse is also working on deals with Orange, Google, Bing, Ligatus, and HP.
More than anything, there is a rallying call driving several French media entrepreneurs. From the tagline of website and print-magazine Causer.fr “especially if you don’t agree” to the “alternative news” of Les Nouvelles News and the civically engaged BastaMag, the production possibilities of online journalism have given a voice to a range of sites wanting to fight causes and be heard. Rue89, Mediapart, @rretsurimages, Slate.fr, and Atlantico all pride themselves on cutting-edge investigative journalism and commentary. Director of Mediapart Edwy Plenel has campaigned veraciously against “liaisons dangereuses” between French media and political interests (Plenel 2007). Users appear to be willing to pay directly when counter-culture forms a central part of the unique selling point with success financially coming from subscriptions and donations.
For example, MediaPart now has 58,000 subscribers on a 9 euro a month tariff (although discounts are available) and Dijonscope, whose tag line is “the price of freedom” moved from advertising to subscription only charging (90 euros for two years, 50 for a year or 5 a month. For Dijonscope, “This is a mission. It’s also about echoing what we believe in that mission in our business model, which is why we have changed our strategy to remove any advertising. I cannot stand advertorial. I have always said there would never be any on this site. You should not be able to buy the opinion of a reporter”.
Of the cases studied, at least two have taken a stand in challenging mainstream legacy media with investigative journalism. Much like Matt Drudge in the 1998 scoop of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which catapulted start-up The Drudge Report into new media territories, French start-ups have wilfully synthesized their identity with their ability to scoop the established press. Rue89 delivered its first scoop concerning Cecilia Attias, the day after Nicolas Sarkosy’s victory in the 2007 Presidential Elections. Sarkozy’s then wife had not voted for her husband in the decisive second round. Much like the Lewinsky scandal, the story had been ignored by the mainstream press. Mediapart’s aggressive reporting has generated several scoops and exclusives most importantly concerning the Bettencourt affair of 2010. Unlike Le Monde which chose not to publish recordings for fear of privacy violations, Mediapart pushed ahead with a series of reports nodding to one of the principal shareholders of L’Oreal avoiding paying taxes, with the full knowledge of top people in Sarkozy’s party.
Rue89 has pioneered a new approach to journalism in France promoting innovation openness and investigations. It combines a strong editorial voice and original in-depth coverage as well as citizen involvement. Users can provide ideas and suggestions but the editorial team decide what to publish and pursue. The result is a priority on the professional, attempting to carve out a place in the traditional media landscape with broad readership rather than niche interest. It is one of the few French start-ups to exploit the web-native formats such as interactivity and infographics in a way more commonly associated to Anglo-Saxon news outlets. Revenues from advertising generate approximately 5€ per CPM so diversification strategies into training, ecommerce fundraising have been deployed. In an ironic return to the shovelware of the first web attempts, Rue89 have attempted to increase gross profit margins when in May 2010 they produced a pocket-sized printed edition accounting for a third of 2010 revenues, by way of reverse publication.
It is also this rallying drive which sustains crowdfunding initiative J’aime L’info, developed by Rue89 with Le Spiil as a founding member. The site hosts 130 community projects and websites with the principle aim of facilitating revenues from small reader donations. StreetPress, for example, has been hosted on the site since March 2011 for people aged 20–35 combining daily issues and long-form journalism. At the time of writing, the latest donation was for 5euros. Much like Spot.us in the US, donations are focussed on either helping the site grow or to fund specific projects, reports or sections.
Editorial successes have not always been rewarded with economic sustainability, however. AgoraVox is struggling to match a peak in traffic in 2009. Rue89, despite a growing readership, had to be bought out. In addition, this is an increasingly competitive landscape with more and more peer and network driven sites (look at the growing influence of Tumblr, for example) where user-generated content can be shared. Parts of sites run by legacy media such as Le Post, a web property of Le Monde which was merged with the French edition of the Huffington Post, are also gaining ground.
The Internet has, of course, provided a publishing house to a range of startups covering niche interest. For example Fluctuat.net covering pop culture, Sofoot.com bringing breaking news from the football world and Topto, a list and classification site aggregating content as “best of” compilations. Increasingly, multimedia and app opportunities are being exploited such as Paris based 7pm-tv.fr offering a television show for business professionals and commentary since October 2011. Owni has carved out a niche producing data journalism and visualisations. However their reach is hindered by questions of sustainability.
In focus: regional and hyperlocal
The legacy structures in the French media present bureaucratic rigidity. There are regulations in place to prevent bedroom bloggers from growing their sites. Most regional and local pure player sites are blogs which means they are not registered as official press organisations. To have the right to be called an official press agent they have to be registered with the CPPAP – the publications and press agency commission as a SPEL, an online press provider. Sabine Torres, founder of regional pure player Dijonscope, vilifies the legacy restrictions.
“The press is very opaque in France yet we want to make the relationship transparent again. To be recognised as a news provider, you have to be registered appropriately, yet most people want to make the most of the democratisation of the press and start news sites. In France these remain firmly in the ‘blog’ camp and cannot officially employ people. Start-ups have been restricted to either younger people starting sites but running them more unofficially, or older generations, with enough money to be registered, but who bring all the old ways of ‘doing news’ to the table.” (Torres 2012)
At a regional or niche level, sustainability is intrinsically linked to the need for official recognition. “Regional has too long been thought of as something trashy, devalued, sensationalised and that everything online has to be free. I fundamentally do not believe that to be true. Regional journalism is the backbone of liberty or political justice – and there is a wealth of good reporting to be done if it is done properly.” (Ibid). Trust and engagement are key (Bradshaw 2012, Timworth 2012). As Briggs states “news entrepreneurs must make the decisions necessary to create and sustain trust with their audience.” (Briggs 2012) This is echoed by AgoraVox director Francesco Piccinini. “We developed a close relationship with the whole community: I know personally at least half of our contributors.” (Bruno 2012)
Those sites which are officially recognised are carving out an increasingly tenable position in the local media landscape. For example, 94.citoyens.com is the regional site for Val de Marne. It grew out of Nogent Citizen (started in 2008) and is an associated member of Le Spiil. Dixhuitinfo covers news and information from the 18th district of Paris, sustaining four staff members. Regional pure player Daily Nord has carved out a strong reputation for commentary and an infographic of the most unusual news features from the region.
Community site Thisfrenchlife has carved out a sustainable niche for ex-pats living, or interested in living, in France. Former regional journalist Craig McGinty has run the site single-handed as a sole trader since 2003. He cites the need to constantly cross pollinate between editorial and business opportunities in order to survive. That may mean opening fringe forums based on hot topics or running editorial knowing large advertising campaigns are being run elsewhere, all to maximise traction, hits and best serve the community. Revenue streams at this level are the most diversified: consultancy, training, affiliate schemes, advertising and sponsorship are all sought. Using affiliate schemes to sites such as Amazon are proving too low in monetary reward to be viable. Local websites are working with local financial services or any other high-priced services to get a more substantial split. It needs to be a big-ticket sell based on the themes of the site.
The business of citizens
There is experimentation building media products around citizen journalism. AgoraVox is one of the most prominent European examples of a citizen journalism site, and one of the premier platforms in France for citizen journalism, though one originally built around a non-profit site. It was inspired by the South Korean OhMyNews and designed to capitalise on the web’s capacity for “strategic intelligence” – the desire by people to enrich their world with diverse information and be an active part in its curation, verification and validation (AgoraVox). It secured its niche during the proposed European Constitution of May 2005 and 2007 presidential elections with a much fuller and more accurate representation of popular sentiment. Members are allowed to publish directly on to the site after initial registration and verification. It has built a sizeable community of contributors in France especially, although diversification to AgoraTV and platforms in the UK and Italy have been less successful. Advertising revenues alone have not been enough so diversification into training and donations are being sought.
With similar motivations but different media, Citizenside hopes to capture the multimedia interpretations of everyday news events. The site aims to create the largest online community of amateur and independent reporters where everyone can share their vision of the news by uploading photos and videos. It was launched in France in 2006 and has 70,000 members in 150 countries. The inspiration for the site came after the London Tube bombings when iconic images from witnesses such as Adam Stacey made the rounds on the international press after being posted to Wikinews and Moblog.co.uk. The site’s main success has been in empowering citizens to earn money from their work. Major news brands have an advantage because they have brand recognition and platforms that are sophisticated but they don’t have the nimbleness of thinking or the speed and agility of a start-up (Trippenbach 2011). There are three main revenue streams: a revenue share with users from selling work (based on 65% for sales in the same country as production: 50% abroad); one off direct media sales to media outlets: exclusive video footage of the fashion guru John Galliano having a racist rant was sold to The Sun in 2011 earning the citizen reporter a substantial sum (enough for an Audi); and through a Pro service, much like a syndication, offered to bigger players.
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