Edwy Plenel: Europe needs participative media against populism

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker must  operate in a participative democracy if he wants to carve a proper plan to re-launch the European construction. That is true also for the media, Edwy Plenel said in an interview with euractiv.com.

Edwy Plenel is former editor-in-chief of Le Monde. In 2008, he co-founded Mediapart, one of the few ‘Pure Play’ media in France that is profitable. 

Plenel spoke to EURACTIV’s founder, Christophe Leclercq as part of the #Media4EU series.

Edwy Plenel, you are co-founder of Mediapart. What is your editorial and business model?

Our editorial model consists of defending the best tradition of quality journalism in the midst of the modern digital era. This is why we have launched Mediapart, contrary to the preconceived notion that information in the digital revolution had to be free.

Mediapart is an independent newspaper, which is completely digital and based on participation. It has two legs: a newspaper with three editions a day, seven days a week, and a club where its subscribers can discuss, critique, enrich the information published in the paper and keep the exchange of opinions alive.

In other words, Mediapart ambitiously aims at becoming a sort of lab of what could be a 21st-century quality media company. I would also like to add that Mediapart lives by the motto ‘only our readers can buy us’: we survive without advertisement; without public subsidies and without private donors.

Have you inspired other media companies after Mediapart’s launch?

We have inspired the entire media industry to convert to paying models. When we launched the company, nobody believed that readers would be willing to pay. Today, all the big legacy newspapers are trying to develop paid-access areas online.

As a ‘Pure Player’, we have partners that have tried to follow in our footsteps, for example, Info Libre in Spain; nevertheless, no other country has yet developed a model that is as pure as the one used by MediapartMediapart is a profitable company, with a net profit of more than 15% on its sales revenue, which is very rare. The question that we can ask ourselves is: Is Mediapart’s success simply due to the invention of a new kind of press based exclusively on the internet or is it also due to the crisis of the French democracy and of the independence, autonomy, and thoroughness of the traditional French media sector?

This crisis exists in other countries too, maybe not in every one of them. You have talked about partners, specifically in Spain; many national media companies have tried to exchange content with partners in other countries with fairly limited success. What have you experienced?

In our experience on the web, we have always done this in a very simple, horizontal way. For example, we have conducted the operation ‘Open Europe’ around the refugee crisis with a dozen European media organisations, including Internazionale in Italy, HuLaLa in Hungary, The Parthenon Post in Greece, Correctiv in Germany and other newspapers. We share contents and we make editorial exchanges very effortlessly.

Today, even when traditional newspapers look for a partner in France, they sometimes turn to us! This was recently the case when the controversial revelations about the identity of the Italian writer Elena Ferrante came out. They were simultaneously published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in the New York Review of Books and on Mediapart.

Furthermore, we work around leaks like many other newspapers with a similar mindset. In comparison to what I have experienced during my 25 years at the paper Le Monde, including 10 years in management, this happens in a much more flexible, easy and straightforward fashion.

And why do you think traditional national media organisations can’t manage to exchange more content across countries, when this could represent a significant added value in comparison to agency reports?

I cannot answer this question on behalf of other media where I haven’t worked for the past 11 years. But I think that legacy media has to manage two different universes at the same time. On the one hand, they have established online activities, and they have made the mistake of positioning themselves on a free, ad-based model which worsens their crisis. The Guardian thought to be able to win over the New York Times market with this strategy and it is forced to face regular losses as a result. The Guardian came here to Mediapart to question us about our business model in the context of their latest considerations regarding how to make their readers pay for content.

On the other hand, they have to manage a cumbersome industry with a two-hundred-year history of labour division and hierarchy. We don’t have the same work division dynamics. Not only we don’t need paper, printers and distribution channels, even the mindset of our teams is adapted to the possibilities allowed by the Internet. Our journalists are much more versatile, they are used to work collectively on investigations and to share information. That is why, when foreign colleagues come to ask for collaboration, the partnerships ensue much more easily.

The problem that many large European media companies clearly encounter today comes as a result of this transition away from an old industry. I honestly think that mainstream media are doomed today, with maybe one or two exceptions, because the online revolution has eliminated the costs that were associated with to 60% to 70% of the price of a newspaper. Our privilege is obviously that we don’t have to deal with this issue.

You said there would be one or two survivors. Did you mean in each country or in the whole of Europe? Or worldwide?

I don’t know, but I think there is only one business model that can be based on free content combined with ads, and that is the entertainment model, which can also entail an information component. The bigger the audience, the bigger the advertising investments and the bigger the gains. Then you can also have some windows dedicated to information on the side. This is the model used by radio and commercial TV. But for the democratic press, I don’t believe it can work.

I have experienced this myself while benchmarking Mediapart’s history against the history of Rue ‘89 : two online newspapers that were created at the same time, with the same corporate culture and concurring business models. Fast-forward to today, one of them is not only not profitable but also, in the context of this lack of productivity, its business model is taking a toll on its content [Rue 89, bought by l’Obs, Le Monde Group]. The ‘free, ad-based’ model forces you to adopt a journalistic style that leans towards entertainment, superficiality and ‘tabloidism’. This is the challenge that comes with the crisis of our industry.

Let’s talk about the role of public authorities to introduce solutions to exit the current crisis.  Let’s focus on the European level and not on the role of the French government: What can Europe bring to the table today, before considering what it can do in the future?

As a citizen who profoundly believes in the European ideal as a democratic and political concept, I think that Europe should provide an ecosystem. We are living an industrial revolution which could even be a civilisational revolution. Maybe one day we will say that the digital transformation is not just like all the other modern-day revolutions, it is more like the invention of the press, meaning something that will forever change the way we access knowledge. If we are living a disruption of this magnitude, well the key is fostering a democratic ecosystem.

What I expect from Europe is that it will pull up the ecosystems of all European nations on matters concerning the right to knowledge and to expression, which are the two pillars of what we do, without any fear. We are seeing this type of threat in the sad episodes of prosecution of whistle-blowers, specifically on security matters. Europe did not grant asylum to Edward Snowden and no European country has risen to the occasion, even though the digital era should bring about extensions to the right to knowledge on issues of public interest.

On this fight you might have been able to find a more sympathetic crowd in Strasbourg at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

I have no idea what kind of attention I would get because, for example, Mediapart itself has been subjected to censorship in the Bettencourt Affair and we are still today in front of the European Court without knowing what decision is going to be taken. When it comes to the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg (ECJ), it will hear another case, on VAT. On all of the issues concerning fundamental and public liberties, the Strasbourg Court enforces legislative texts not in the name of the EU but of Europe as a common ideal.

Many of the freedoms we enjoy today in France come from decisions condemning the French state, I have witnessed this myself as a journalist. For example, wiretapping was not regulated in our country, and it was through our campaigning, together with sanctions against France, that the regulators were force to act. And there are many other examples. We will see if the Strasbourg Courts will live up to their past reputation.

You have just mentioned the idea of an ecosystem for the free press. Do you have a specific point of view in terms of how public authorities could provide either direct or indirect support to the industry?

I have always been in favour of indirect aid, because it is not targeted towards media companies but towards readers. Historically, the VAT has not been a merely anecdotal issue, it is a way to say: newspapers are not a commodity like others, they are crucial for democratic vitality.

We are expecting a lot from European authorities because now there are fully online newspapers that demand a clear declaration of technological and format neutrality. It is not the format that defines the newspapers: whether they are on paper or online, they have to benefit from the same rights and the same obligations, which also means from the same indirect support [meaning a subsidized VAT rate as well].

Now, about direct aid, I am not against them in principle, I understand that a struggling industry in transition could benefit from receiving them. But at Mediapart we wanted to prove from a point of view that is – probably to many’s surprise – liberal, that our company could be profitable surviving only on its readership. In fact, France is too heavily dependent on direct aids from the government. So for us this is a way to show that we can create added value, employment and wealth with information. I think this is good news.

If we go beyond media-related policy issues, what do you expect from Europe? With the Brexit referendum, we have witnessed a rise in populism in most countries. What is your view on this?

I am going to say something probably obvious: I think that Europe is paying for having abandoned its funding purpose. Of course we have a market that is very important on a worldwide scale, of course there are economic implications and ramifications that essentially have an impact on people’s everyday lives, but you can’t hold an ideal together by simply focusing on economics.

I was the only one convinced that a common currency would bring about the creation of a shared vision. But this was not the case: monetary policy cannot create ideals, for that you need politics.

So what I am expecting of Europe is that it will reverse the current tendency of having economics as a priority and as an entity autonomous from politics. The problem is the status of the European Central Bank, it is the fact that the ECB cannot lend to states but it can lend to other banks. I hope that a real common political ideal can emerge, which will allow the peoples of Europe to acknowledge and get to know each other.

Because we can’t keep on making fun of Brexit voters, Greek voters and one day French voters, we need to realise for how many Europe today appears to be just an abstraction.

More concretely, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker wishes to present a re-launch plan, a roadmap as he is calling it, in March 2017 on the anniversary of the creation of the EU. If you were face-to-face with him, what would be the two or three ideas and concrete measures that you would propose to him?

First of all, I would ask him: ‘You are not preparing this re-launch plan in your basement, right? You are living in the age of the digital revolution: where is the website introducing this re-launch plan? Where is this participative and contribution-based place where the citizens of Europe can share their ideas with you?’.

So I would firstly question his method, because today we can only be smart when we operate in a participative democracy, no one can make ‘top-down’ decisions anymore.

Secondly, I would ask him to challenge this taboo which has plagued the European construction, that is to say a central bank which is completely free of any form of scrutiny and which, in a certain way, acts politically independently from politics.

Finally, I would ask him about one of the most surprising elements that have emerged from the Greek crisis. I am talking about democracy: the citizen’s right to knowledge. This ideal started in Great Britain when the people demanded that the Parliament opened its books. Let’s take the example of the Eurogroup gatherings, we are confronted with unending meetings in a setting which does not seem very formal, where the discussions back-and-forth are neither transcribed, which would force people to pay attention to what is being said, nor made public.

So to wrap it up, I am going to cite an old phrase used by the President of the Tiers Etat [The commoner’s Estate during the Ancien Regime]: ‘The publicising of political life is the safeguard of the people’. If people have the feeling that something is being hidden from them, they make up conspiracy theories, they think that everyone is corrupted. We can’t say ‘populism looms over us’ and in reality favour practices that sow the seeds of populism.

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