Few believed a subscription-only website of investigative journalism could survive
Why write about Reasons for optimism when so much is going wrong in our politics, economy, and environment? Optimism gives us confidence we can make things better. It’s another day of opportunity.
Conventional wisdom predicted failure for the French startup Mediapart in 2008, whose novel concept was an ad-free, subscription-only website focused on investigative journalism. At the time, few publications dared to charge for a digital subscription, much less for one with such a narrow focus and limited potential audience.
I first wrote about Mediapart in 2012, after reading the online book by Nicola Bruno and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, “Survival is Success: Journalistic Online Startups in Western Europe.” Since then I have followed it with interest. Earlier this year I updated its progress with the annual report by co-founder and president, Edwy Plenel.
Mediapart finished 2020 with 218,000 digital subscribers, revenues of 20 million euros, and earnings before tax of 6 million euros. That alone should be a reason for optimism. But Plenel recently explained why Mediapart’s success could by a model for other quality journalism media. He spoke at the 12th Global Investigative Journalism Conference of the Global Investigative Journalism Network and gave an interview to French editor Marthe Rubio.
This blog post includes edited excerpts from Rubio’s interview, titled “Five Journalism Tips from Edwy Plenel“.
1. Defend the Value of Information
“When Mediapart launched in 2008, no one thought that general information could pay off online. By accepting this, the media has accepted a destruction of the value of information for the benefit of entertainment, which has taken the form of the reign of opinions, the ‘blah’ of clashes, polemics, talk shows, and partisan positions.
“We defend the idea that quality information requires work and that this work has value. In my opinion, public interest journalism is about building a bond of trust that defends the value of information. Information has value, so it must be supported: by subscription or by donations. I think it is a model applicable in other parts of the world.”
2. Build a Strong and Horizontal Link with Readers
“You have to go looking for subscribers or members by ‘shouting’ the news and having a participatory link with this audience. The digital revolution means we are no longer above this readership; we are no longer looking at them from above. We are in a much less vertical relationship, and readers can question us.
“This is why Mediapart was built on two legs: a paid newspaper and a free participatory club. If you support Mediapart, we offer you a platform for communicating your commitments, your fights, your alerts, and discuss and challenge the newspaper. I believe that this originality is also a strength, which has made it possible to retain our readers.
“This engagement presupposes specific professions. Today our newspaper has 120 full-time employees, but only half are journalists. The rest are computer scientists or are involved in communication, marketing, management, or the relationship with subscribers.”
3. View All Subjects Through the Prism of the Public Interest
“As our audience has grown larger, we no longer cover only financial-political affairs as we used to do at Mediapart’s beginning. In selecting our story topics, our only criterion is the public interest. For example, we don’t cover sports, but we investigated football leaks and showed how a sport as popular as football could have been corrupted by money. We provoked the French #Metoo movement in the political world, and in the cinema.”
4. Accept Frustration
“How do we move a society forward? It is not by saying: I am bringing you the solution. Because it is up to society to provide the solution. Our job is to make society think. Like a teacher who gives his students an assignment. The students are going to let this assignment make them think and they are going to progress in trying to find the solution to this problem.We journalists do the same: we put the problem on the table. We bring bad news. But it is said that this bad news, if we face it, will make a better democracy.”
5. Keep Questioning Yourself and Share Knowledge
“Our time is a virulent and violent time, a time of democratic regression where political and economic interests do not support independence. How to resist? The answer is the collective. You have to be wary of the lone hero. The journalist is not a lonely hero, and if he becomes one, there is the risk that he will become the hero of his own story, that he provides the questions and the answers himself and that he ends up in a kind of personal hubris, even if for a good cause. The only guarantee of resistance is collective solidarity. At Mediapart, this is what made us strong. In the face of hardship, slander, smear campaigns, we do not act blindly, we discuss, we reflect collectively, we question ourselves and ask ourselves whether we have done things right or wrong.
“Doing this well requires continual learning. One of the beauties of this job is that we are permanent autodidacts. In journalism, you always have to learn, you can’t say once and for all: ‘I know.’ We always have to learn.”
Plenel and the other founders of Mediapart had an optimistic outlook from the beginning. They believed that there was an audience for quality of journalism. In spite of all the obstacles and all the doubters they faced, they showed that when they produced a quality, relevant product, the public would pay for it. The point of Plenel’s five points is that earning the trust of the public requires continuous outreach and commitment. Innovation and adaptation must never end.
In terms of revenue, Mediapart’s totals represent an infinitesimal amount compared to what traditional media were earning before the digital disruption. But its success is just one of many grass-roots examples that are changing the face of journalism. Another reason for optimism. Remember, it’s another day of opportunity.
This article was originally published on Entrepreneurial Journalism, and is republished with permission.