Subscription-based journalism site forces French politician to resign

Le Temps via WorldCrunch | Time

The resignation last week of French President Francois Hollande's budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac over allegations of tax fraud has been shining a spotlight on one model of online investigative journalism. Mediapart, a French website founded  five years ago by a pair of veteran journalists from newspaper Le Monde, now has another feather in its cap for breaking (and sticking with) the Cahuzac scandal, and has a subscriber base that proves online journalism can work.

Co-founders Laurent Mauduit and Edwy Plenel are celebrating the latest victory for Mediapart, which first gained fame for exposing Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign finance scandal in 2010. Both during that investigation and the Cahuzac story, politicians, readers and other members of the media questioned the site's allegations.

"Not only did Cahuzac lie but we were also belittled by our colleagues, who told us this was nonsense,” Mauduit told Time's Vivienne Walt. French National Center for Scientific Research sociologist and media specialist Jean-Marie Charon notes that skepticism is a product of French culture, which largely mistrusts the media.

"The public doesn’t like to see newspapers pursuing and hunting political figures," Charon told Le Temps. "There is a belief that this kind of journalism contributed to the rise of populist parties, who campaign on the ‘everyone is corrupt’ platform.”

Plenel says the last five years at the site, which employs experienced journalists and has a solid following of more than 62,000 paid subscribers, has been able to make the most of its freedom from the mainstream, but none of the success can be taken for granted.

“Mediapart is successful, but the situation is fragile,” says Plenel. He says it would be more comfortable with around 100,000 paying subscribers. Like its satiric cousin, French weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaine, Mediapart has no advertising and depends fully on its sales – an online subscription costs 9 euros a month. The website reached break-even at the end of 2010. It made a profit of 700,000 euros in 2012, with a turnover of about 6 million euros.

Mediapart has 45 employees, including 31 journalists. “Their salaries are slightly higher than the rest of the profession,” says Plenel proudly, speaking from his office located at the back of the newsroom, behind some big white bookshelves. “Mediapart is a lab where the 21st century press is being invented – we want to show that the Internet does not necessarily endanger the profession, that high-quality journalism can exist on the Internet.”

Charon thinks Mediapart's success means it's time for other news organizations to rethink their strategies. “This is going to force the traditional media to reinvigorate their investigative units,” Charon told Time. “Investigative reporting almost totally disappeared from the big media after the early 2000s.”

But when Le Temps asked her if that meant media would invest in those investigative teams, or Mediapart would continue to stand on its own, Charon noted, “Given the present situation of the press, the second hypothesis seems more likely.”

  • Joshua Gillin

    Joshua Gillin is a contributor to Poynter's MediaWire blog and a writer, editor and pop culture blogger for the Tampa Bay Times and its sister tabloid, tbt*.


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