JFF #020 – The Journalism Funding landscape in France

[Cross-posted from the JFF site.]

To close out this unforgettable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons year, we’re looking at journalism and funding in France. Which is why this edition is also available in French.

We always have a high calibre of interviewees – but we anonymise their input to enable them to speak as freely as possible. This time, however, we’re delighted to be able to thank Professor Julia Cagé, whose work to raise debate about the sustainability of journalism has been at the forefront of public debate in France and beyond in the last 5 years. We particularly appreciated her time given that it came in the closing days of a high-profile crowdfunding campaign to try to secure citizen involvement in the ownership and running of Le Monde!

This is our last edition of 2020 – when we return in the new year we will have exciting news to share on the future of the Journalism Funders Forum. If you have feedback, or ideas about what you’d like the JFF to cover next year, as ever, please let us know – info@journalismfundersforum.com

Read on, stay safe, and rest well for a big 2021,

Sameer and Adam

France has – on the surface – a relatively healthy media environment (if a weakening press), a deep (although not adversarial) journalism culture, and strong legal frameworks, bolstered by consistent state support and active crowdfunding. But scratch beyond that surface, and you find press freedom challengesmedia concentration, and plummeting trust, while gender (see also this and this), ethnic and class diversity within the media is still poor. To do justice to all this, we’d need three further editions… So we wanted this time to really zoom in on the money and the philanthropy – and that’s where we’ll start.

Back in 2009, mid-financial crisis, media professor and entrepreneur Frédéric Filloux wrote a piece in Slate France on foundation-funded journalism, which he called “a model that’s hard to import to France.” (The URL is less polite, including the string “fondation-mythe-france”). Filloux gave five reasons for his scepticism:

  • France doesn’t have the kind of wealth that will pour tens of millions into journalism like in the USA
  • Even if foundations funded them, major news organisations would still need to turn a profit, but Le Monde et al were not managing to do this
  • Philanthropy in France is weak, partly because state funding is everywhere – we’ll come back to this in a minute
  • Unlike US philanthropists, who hand over funds and leave the journalists to it (perhaps a slight oversimplification), he accuses French mécènes of wanting to buy influence. He notes, acerbically, “les mécènes français préfèrent l’illusion du pouvoir intellectuel à la grandeur du désintéressement.” (There’s disagreement on this – many, like RSF, worry about such media concentration, but the latest Media Pluralism Monitor says that the risk of such editorial influence is extremely low because of “the outstanding protections enjoyed by French journalists (clause de conscience and clause de cession)”.)
  • Finally he notes that the amount of money needed to sustain serious non-profit newsrooms like ProPublica presupposes foundations with huge endowments – difficult in a philanthropic environment 10x smaller than Germany, and 150x smaller than the US at the time (even if the number of French foundations has grown enormously since 2000).

What did Filloux mean by state funding being everywhere? When you bundle together state funding for the press (in place since 1796), public service media, and AFP, Professor Gilles Bastin calculated ten years later, it’s equivalent to nearly €6 billion a year. This system of funding, says Bastin, has serious flaws – not least a lack of transparency, the perception of that access to this funding is not equal, a culture of dependency rather than innovation, and the suspicion that state support for some media, rather than strengthening journalism, is in fact subsidising the bottom line of corporate owners. As elsewhere, much of the pressure for reform is coming from those who need to innovate to stay alive, like independent media, in the form of SPIIL, the association of independent digital media editors.

A 2017 JFF report by Anne-Lise Carlo (here’s a readout of the launch event) reinforces many of Filloux’s critiques, saying that “philanthropy is associated in France with power and influence” and that “acquisitions of media companies are made […] to use the media firm to serve the economic interests of a corporation or individual, rather than out of any concern for journalism.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose… 

So who *is* funding journalism in France, beyond the state?

Where to start but with Google? (Facebook’s funding too, but not at anything like the same level.) France has been a major frontline in the battle between publishers and platforms over copyright and revenues, but a new compromise has been found. 

In 2013, the first compromise took the form of a Google-backed three-year €60m Fonds pour l’Innovation Numérique de la Presse (Digital Innovation Fund for the Press), led by ex-editor of Liberation Ludovic Blecher, to support innovative projects proposed by members of APIG, an association of over 300 major titles. Blecher then went on to launch Google’s Digital News Initiative Innovation Fund – which gave €20.1m across 75 projects in France (second-highest after Germany) – as a more open, scaled-up, Europe-wide version of this fund, from 2016-19

In recent weeks, news of a new deal (again with APIG) related to copyright emerged, promising the equivalent of about €50m a year to French publishers for three years, which Frédéric Filloux dissects here, noting wrily that “The sign that the deal could be a decent one is that none of the parties are gloating about it.” Whether this will drive innovation and transformation across the industry remains to be seen.

Beyond Google, well, the landscape looks a little bare. We’re told that investment in innovative public interest media projects is also quite rare and precarious. Media accelerator Tank Media, launched with such hope three years ago, was forced to suspend its operations this summer, and has repurposed its offices as a co-working space for now. Video news startup Brut has some high-profile investors, but in a different part of the market to the public interest sector.

In the absence of public, standardised data about philanthropic giving (maybe a job for someone at the Philanthro-Lab? The founder’s surname is literally Journo…), Anne-Lise Carlo cited in 2017 just 5 foundations (p13) giving to journalism in France, and these are led by the decidedly non-French Gates Foundation. Most of these, she says, support journalism through prizes and grants to individuals, or media literacy/education, rather than funding focused on strengthening the ecosystem or on addressing structural issues. One foundation well-known to the JFF is Charles Léopold Mayer Fondation pour le Progrès de l’Homme, which is Swiss-based, but has a base in Paris too, and understands the strategic need to fund the media ecosystem.

This 2019 guide to foundations that spend on arts and culture (including Fondation Carmignac and Fondation Jean-Luc Lagardère) might be a helpful starting point for conversation, or even (pandemic-permitting) convening. As far as I could discern, it’s not a topic that Fondation De France, the largest French foundation, touches on (although the topic came up during its 50th anniversary panels at the 2019 EFC conference). 

Philanthropy has deep roots in French culture, as Professor Arthur Gautier explains (for more background, see this analysis for ERNOP, and Edith Bruder’s 2015 EUFORI study). While French philanthropy has changed – and grown – a lot in the last ten years, with a number of people pushing for further researchevolution and innovation, it’s still just inching towards support for media and trust of this kind of support au fur et à mesure. It wasn’t a topic in Mecenova’s 2020 Panorama report on foundation spending, nor at last month’s ADMICAL Mecenes Forum, for example, although the programme did raise a range of adjacent questions we’ve noted before, including on collective approaches to philanthropy. Mecenova’s list of French philanthropy Twitter influencers provides a good snapshot of how philanthropy, and the public conversation about it, is changing – in government, business, and journalism – and is worth keeping an eye on as the conversation progresses. 

Finally, the plan for a “Maison des médias libres” in Paris (backed by industrial magnate Olivier Legrain) housing dozens of independent media, enabling them to reduce costs and increase cross-fertilisation and solidarity by sharing space and services, seems finally to have run into a brick wall – although curiously its survey form for media tenants is still up (at the time of writing).

Aux armes, citoyens! (Sorry…)

It seems that the form of philanthropy that most people are comfortable with – and which government measures have most incentivised – is citizen philanthropy, both in the form of donations, and as more specific project-based crowdfunding. (There’s also a major push, says Julia Cagé, to persuade government to shift some of its media funding into a voucher scheme, which will allow citizens to choose which media to support.)

Various media have managed to raise funds through crowdfunding platforms like KissKissBankBank (which has an independent media section), HelloAsso (more non-profit- and community group-oriented) and certified B Corp Ulele. Two platforms – J’aime l’info (powered by Ulele), & Presse & Pluralisme – allow citizens to make regular or one-off tax-deductible donations specifically to media organisations. This excellent panel from the Festival de L’Info Locale interviews media like Made In Perpignan which began with donations from a variety of smaller sources, including citizens and local businesses.

Julia Cagé makes clear that she sees a key role in the coming years not just for citizen involvement in funding journalism, but also in its governance. The campaign she is leading, Un Bout du Mondehas secured the €150k it needs to buy a stake in Le Monde, and thereafter, perhaps in other media. Rather than aim at a small target and risk having people say it wouldn’t work for bigger media, she says, why not go for a household name, to show that if her model works there, it can work anywhere? Her book Sauver les médias takes on this area in detail, proposing a new company structure that brings both these elements together.

Who’s doing independent public interest journalism?

For reasons of length (and sanity), we’re not going to give you a tour d’horizon of the whole French public interest journalism scene – but we will point you in a few fruitful directions. Alongside its major news and media brands, France has a variety of local and independent media organisations. In addition to those you might encounter through those funding links above, a few names of particular interest include:

  • Mediapart, founded in 2008 as a member-funded independent media organisation, and with 150k members, its value proposition goes from strength to strength (there’s good analysis of Mediapart, among other startups, in this Reuters Institute study – and of its role in keeping #MeToo on the agenda in France here.)
  • Mediacités – 4-city network of local investigative journalism outlets
  • Disclose, founded in 2018, is an investigative startup that managed to raise philanthropic funds, not from within France, but from Open Society Foundations.
  • Rue89, founded in 2007 by ex-Liberation journalists as a series of local news sites in different cities, and now owned by magazine Le Nouvel Observateur (which my French teacher used to lend me when I was a teenager)
  • Les Glorieuses – a feminist media newsletter with 150k subscribers, funded by the Ministry of Culture. (On a personal note, feminist podcast La Poudre is essential listening.)
  • LIVE Magazine – an event-based live journalism organisation that has branched out beyond Paris and France, to Brussels and London
  • BastaMag! – independent radical magazine also curating a portal of other indies
  • LOOPSIDER – a video network recently in the news after exposing a shocking case of police brutality in Paris

Four overlapping resources will give you a good overview of the wider range of independent public interest media across France – SPIIL’s sortable member list, BastaMag’s “map of alternatives”, the Medias Libres map and the clickable Carte de la “Presse Pas Pareille”. There are a few more at the EJC’s European Journalism Fund, and Engaged Journalism Accelerator. Alongside events like the Festival de l’Info Locale, people are also being encouraged to support local media, and to map them. The wider landscape is revealed through Le Monde Diplomatique’s Map of Who Owns the French Media – available both as a poster and a GitHub repository. And, if you have time, you really need to read this fascinating analysis.

As with the UK, France is home to a number of internationally-significant groups working on press freedom, freedom of expression, and media development – Reporters Sans Frontieres (and the related Forum on Information and Democracy), UNESCOWAN-IFRACFI, and ERIM (formerly IREX Europe) among them. 

So what do our interviewees think should come next for French funders, investors and media?

Aside from supporting or matching funds raised through citizen involvement in the media, philanthropy and investors (tech companies included) need in the first instance to upskill in media funding, and to get more organised, perhaps through ADMICAL. They can then play a more strategic, catalytic role, particularly outside Paris. Providing the risk capital to potential innovators, say our interviewees, would also counter-balance the slow pace of change across what is quite a conservative industry. 

Our interviewees were keen to stress that diversity at all levels and layers in the French media is one of the biggest brakes on its trust levels – something philanthropy and investors can help with. Owners, editors, decision makers, investors are largely men, and overwhelmingly white. French media, they said, urgently need a system-wide change management process to infuse newsrooms with diversity of background, of thought, and of expertise if they are to reconnect with citizens, especially in the wake of the Gilets Jaunes protests. The backlash against #MeToo and the broader systemic discrimination against women in French newsrooms and media companies has, in some senses, not been surprising, but accounts like this are still somewhat shocking.

Julia Cagé notes that the number of press cards issued continues to fall (if more slowly than in previous years), and that the model of education followed by journalism schools skews towards a particular social and educational class, and this “throttles the profession.” Against this backdrop, funders and investors need to back diversely-owned media, they say – media owned by and serving audiences of women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, local communities and young people. 

We think that’s a good place to end the year – a vision of a media landscape bubbling with diverse and diversely-owned media, connecting with and involving the citizens they serve. See you in 2021!

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