After 10 years, could French independent publisher Mediapart be a model for the whole news industry?

An interview with Mediapart’s president and co-founder Edwy Plenel, while the publisher will soon be a decade-old. Plenel talks about the French media landscape, Mediapart’s business model, and what explains its success.

Mediapart’s newsroom in 2012 — © Esther Vargas

Mediapart is a strange one. Very French — I would say typically French — but also a model for the whole news industry. Mediapart is a participatory media organisation exclusively funded by subscriptions. Today, it is trendy and not very original, but ten years ago it was pioneering and very few publishers or editors believed in this business model.

The news media turns ten years old on 16 March 2018 and, from the beginning, Edwy Plenel (a former editor-in-chief at Le Monde), one of the four founders, refused any kind of advertising and subvention from major tech companies or foundations. All resources come from the 140,000 subscribers, providing a revenue of 13,7 million euros (17 million US dollars). Subscribers are very active, and participate to the news process, especially through the Club Mediapart. It is also a media of reference with a strong team of investigative journalists exposing many scandals in France and abroad (arm deal in Pakistan, the Bettencourt family succession, links between Nicolas Sarkozy and Gaddafi, Malta files, Football leaks…).

So, Mediapart is not only interesting for its business model, but also for the quality journalism produced both by its journalists and subscribers.

BP: Where is Mediapart ten years after its launch?

Edwy Plenel: I was in debt for ten years in order to create this news company and I only paid back my last loan in December 2017! Today, Mediapart is: 140,000 paying subscribers, 4,700,000 unique visitors per month, 85 members of staff, 13,7 millions revenues in 2017 and seven profit-making years. The key to our success is trust. Our subscribers — we don’t call them our readers or our users — trust us, even when we shake up what they believe to be true.

Mediapart’s net income (left) and gross result before tax (right)— Source: Mediapart

Do you define yourself as mass media or niche?

Since the beginning, we had in mind three newspapers: Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Libération, as well as three French magazines: L’Express, Le Point et L’Obs. We don’t lack any confidence and we are convinced that digital allows us to do a better job as journalists than paper. This isn’t a formula or an abstract statement, but we have a real conviction that only the internet can provide such high engagement and such a relationship between citizens and journalists.

Where does your revenue come from?

It comes from over 95 percent of our subscribers seeing as we don’t accept any advertising or subsidies. My estimation in terms of growth is 10,000 subscribers per year, which allows us to make worthwhile investments.

Is this a sustainable business model at a time when paywalls are causing the majority of users to go the other way?

You’re making an error: Paying is not a wall, it’s a thin membrane that every citizen can pass through.

You should get rid of this idea of the insurmountable wall and look at how Mediapart works to increase its market share:

  • The club Mediapart, which consists of subscriber contributions, is free to the public. Some articles are read by tens of thousands of users even if they are not members.
  • A subscriber can give away any paid-for article to anyone they want in just one click.
  • Our live videos serve to recruit subscribers. When we interviewed Emmanuel Macron in May 2017, we received 3,000 new subscribers.
  • Finally, we know how to write a good title and lede to trigger a purchase.
  • Each element taken separately wouldn’t be enough, but all of them together make it possible to create a community of subscribers… which must then be retained.
Evolution of the number of Mediapart’s subscribers (left), Evolution of Mediapart’s annual revenue (right) — (source: Mediapart). Readmore on Mediapart business model in the Chicago Booth’s Stigler Center for the Study of Economy and the State’s report.

How do you see the future of the European press?

In France, state funding — which adds up to more than a billion euros — is a real scandal. It only serves to block access for new entrants like Mediapart and it fosters the incestuous relationship between power and the media of yesteryear. We give money to the billionaires who make considerable amounts of profit in other sectors…

At European level, I am equally opposed to private funding from Google, Facebook, or the Gates Foundation. Le Monde Afrique, like certain sections of the Guardian or El País, is largely financed by this foundation. It starts with subsidies, but where will this system lead us? How can we still talk about independent media that serves the reader and advocates for press pluralism? In 2018, the independent press are little fish that swim alongside big sharks in a polluted sea! We’d really like to fight these big shark, but we have to clean up the sea! It is the duty of governments and the European Union to do this, but there is an obvious lack of will…

Mediapart could serve as a model for other European and non-European media, but we don’t quite understand your international strategy.

First of all, please understand that all of our energy was dedicated to France in the first few years, even if we have long-standing international friendships with news outlets, such as Italy’s L’Internazionale. So caution was in order. Our first investment — Infolibre — dates back to 2013. We supported this independent Spanish media created by journalists from Publico, El Mundo and El País. We have 10 percent of the capital. We are also founding members of EIC, European Investigative Collaborations. In short, we no longer see ourselves as the underdog.

Edwy Plenel’s book (2018, Don Quichotte)

Meaning a more proactive policy at the international level?

If a German, British, or American team came to see me, I’d be all in. But on three conditions: first of all, the team would have to have a strong editing culture, a strong investigative culture, and finally a responsiveness to the era we’re living in. If they don’t meet all of these three conditions, then it’d be a no.

Do you define yourself as a lab for the independent press?

We are pitted against the interests of significant players. Imagine our investigation of the Libyan financing of the Nicolas Sarkozy presidential campaign had not been taken up by the New York Times — even if it was to criticise it. This is one of the biggest scandals of the early 21st century and it is now suspected that one of the reasons the war in Libya is happening is because the evidence of this financing was erased. But some press outlets continue to turn a blind eye and look elsewhere! Even though the facts have been established.

Are you interested in the membership driven principles of the Dutch publisher De Correspondent, which will soon be exported to the US?

We met the two founders and we wrote to their American mentor Jay Rosen, but we didn’t get a response. In any case, it’s more of a magazine and investigation is not at the heart of their work. But it’s real participation journalism.

Edwy Plenel, the year of Mediapart’s launch (2008) © Xavier Malafosse (Creative Commons)

During the election campaigns in France, we talked a lot about an ‘anti fake news’ law. Do you think this is a positive development?

Watch out for the trap! Every government wants to attack those who disturb rit, and with such a law, the Prime minister could very well attack the producers of fake news, but also gag those who investigate his methods. This law is a double edged sword and we are led to believe that it has only one target. We will be careful.

You were supposed to stop at 65 and facilitate the transition to the new generation…

That failed, Mediapart still needs me. The torch will be passed on, but later.


About Edwy Plenel

Edwy Plenel has been a journalist since 1976, first with Rouge (1976–1978), then a few months at Matin de Paris, and most notably, at le Monde for twenty five years (1980–2005) where he was editor-in-chief between 2000 and 2004. Co-founder and president of Mediapart since 2008, Plenel is also the author of more than thirty novels. His latest, La Valeur de l’Information, came out on 8 March.

Read more on Mediapart business model in the Chicago Booth’s Stigler Center for the Study of Economy and the State’s report.

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