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An Online Upstart Roils French Media, Politics

Originally published on Mon July 1, 2013 5:11 pm

Every week, it seems, a new scandal is unearthed by the upstart, online newspaper Mediapart. The most recent bomb was that President Francois Hollande's budget minister was evading taxes when he was supposed to be cracking down on tax cheats. After vehemently denying the allegations, in the face of overwhelming evidence, Jerome Cahuzac was forced to resign.

Hollande issued an embarrassing national apology while Mediapart kept racking up new subscribers. In its five-year existence, the site has unveiled stories about tax evasion, illegal campaign financing and shady business dealings between government officials and French tycoons.

The cases are now under investigation, including allegations that former President Nicolas Sarkozy took illegal campaign contributions from France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, and former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Edwy Plenel, head of Mediapart, says much of the newspaper's success is due to what he calls the absence of a strong democratic culture in France.

"We have a very big opacity, very secret culture of all the powers, political powers, financial powers," he says. "Mediapart, during the last five years, revealed all the big stories against this culture of secret."

Plenel says the French, unlike the Americans, don't have laws such as the Freedom of Information Act, which forces the government to release documents.

Plenel, who once presided over the newspaper Le Monde, founded Mediapart with 5 million euros and a commitment to pay 30 journalists a living salary for three years. He says no one thought the site would survive.

Turning A Profit

Today, Mediapart operates from a newsroom in the Bastille area of Paris. It has 46 full-time investigative journalists and 75,000 subscribers who pay 90 euros ($117) for a one-year subscription. Mediapart cleared $1.5 million in profit last year.

The feisty startup is beating the more established newspapers like Le Figaro and Liberation, which are limping along with the help of government subsidies but just half the number of subscribers.

Media sociologist Divina Frau Meigs says that for the first time in a long time, a newspaper is setting, not following, the national agenda.

"He's playing a sort of independent watchdog role," she says of Plenel and Mediapart. "So he's denouncing whatever is not working in the French system, and there are quite a few things and quite a few problems in France in terms of transparency of politics."

The Internet allows Mediapart to use extensive data mining. The site backs up its articles with dozens of pages of related archive material.

Plenel says that to his surprise, people read even lengthy pieces, and they comment on them. He says there is a dialogue between Mediapart and its community of subscribers. That flies in the face of the advice he was given at the outset: that the information had to be short, flashy and free, or nobody would bother reading it.

"Internet is a chance for journalism, not the death, a chance," he says. "Because you can organize better journalism — more sources, more documented, deeper journalism."

Plenel says the site is shooting for 100,000 subscribers, but in its quest to get there, it will never accept advertising. And he calls entertainment and its opinion pieces the real enemies of good journalism.

"My opinion against your opinion, my point of view against your point of view, my religion against your religion, my community — that's the sort of disorder of opinion," he says. "A democratic culture needs information."

Solid, original information and good journalism have value, Plenel says. His site shows that people are ready to pay for that.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

New junkies in France might aim at RSS readers at Mediapart, a successful online newspaper there. Mediapart claims to offer straightforward in-depth reporting without the spin or advertising. And it's doing something a lot of news sites have had trouble accomplishing: making money. Mediapart is funded by subscriptions, and it's also becoming a major player in a country where the media has often been accused of cozying up to those in power.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is in Paris following all the buzz.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Every week, it seems there's a new scandal broken by the upstart online newspaper Mediapart. Its most recent coup was the revelation that President Francois Hollande's budget minister was evading taxes, using several offshore bank accounts, just as the socialist government had vowed to crack down on tax cheats.

Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac was forced to resign.

FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Hollande was forced to issue an embarrassing national apology, while Mediapart kept racking up new subscribers. In its five-year existence, the site has unveiled stories about tax evasion, illegal campaign financing and shady business dealings between government officials and French tycoons. Every case it has unearthed is now under investigation, including allegations that former President Nicolas Sarkozy accepted illegal campaign contributions from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Edwy Plenel, head of Mediapart, calls France the least democratic country in Europe and that has created a thirst for independent journalism.

EDWY PLENEL: We have a very big opacity, very secret culture of all the powers, political powers, financial powers. Mediapart, during the last five years, revealed all the big story against this culture of secret.

BEARDSLEY: Plenel says the French - unlike the Americans - don't have the right to know because the country has no equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act. Plenel, who once presided over newspaper Le Monde, founded Mediapart five years ago with 5 million euros and a commitment to pay 30 journalists a living salary for three years. He says no one thought the site would survive.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Today, Mediapart has 46 full-time investigative journalists in its Paris newsroom. It has 75,000 subscribers. It made a million and a half dollars in revenue last year. The feisty startup is posing a real challenge to established newspapers like Le Figaro and Liberation, which have been losing readers and money for years.

Media sociologist Divina Frau Meigs says with Mediapart, Plenel is reviving the lost art of investigative journalism in France and setting the national news agenda.

DIVINA FRAU MEIGS: Now, he's playing a sort of independent watchdog role. So he's denouncing whatever is not working in the French system. And there are quite a few things and quite a few problems in France in terms of transparency of politics.

BEARDSLEY: When Plenel started, he was told that online journalism had to be short, flashy and free or nobody would bother reading it. He says, to his surprise, his subscribers have responded to Mediapart's in-depth articles which often include links to archive material and independent research.

PLENEL: Internet is a chance for journalism, not the death, a chance because you can organize better journalism: more sources, more documented, more deeper journalism.

BEARDSLEY: When Mediapart first exposed Sarkozy's alleged illegal campaign funding, Plenel was painted as a left-wing zealot by conservatives. That was until he dug just as deep to reveal corruption on the left. Plenel says his only agenda is democracy and now he's feared by all sides. Plenel says the site will never accept ads to make more money. He calls advertising, entertainment and confrontational opinion the real enemies of good journalism.

PLENEL: My opinion against your opinion, my point of view against your point of view, my religion against your religion, my community - that's the sort of disorder of opinion. A democratic culture needs information.

BEARDSLEY: Information and good journalism have a value, says Plenel. And his site shows that people are ready to pay for that.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.