France’s Media Industry Is Kind of a Mess, Too

31 Jul 2009, Paris, France --- France, Paris, Place du Chatelet, newsstand --- Image by ? Jean Heintz/Hemis/Corbis Photo: Jean Heintz/Hemis/Corbis

This week, seven top editors at Le Monde, which is basically France's New York Times and played a role in reporting the Edward Snowden leaks, announced they were quitting en masse to protest new management at the paper. The complaints centered on the paper's first female managing editor, Natalie Nougayrède. The mass-quit doesn't seem particularly ideological — it's not about management telling them to ease up on big powers in government or business — but more directed at what they call a messy attempt to fuse the paper's print and digital sides. (Sound familiar?)

"A lack of confidence in, and communication with, editorial management prevents us from fulfilling our roles as chief editors," they wrote in an internal letter. Of course, quitting and/or striking are time-honored methods of complaining among workers in France; recently, Paris taxi drivers went on strike to protest the encroachments of apps like Uber. Also in time-honored French-labor fashion: The famously cranky cabbies got slightly violent, attacking an Uber car.

As for the Le Monde mass-quit, it might be undercut by the fact that the editors kindly said they would stay on until the paper found suitable replacements. (Note to editors: That's a recipe for never actually leaving.) The "exodus" also underscores dynamics peculiar to French media. Like in the U.S., traditional Gallic newspapers have been suffering huge revenue losses the past decade; unlike in the U.S., the French government has for the past five years been infusing the country's major papers with cash support. Last year, it gave the center-left Le Monde and its center-right counterpart, Le Figaro, about €16 million apiece. Even magazines devoted to TV have been getting state money.

Also, proactive and methodical investigative reporting as we've known it in the U.S. isn't really a French tradition; the big papers, although they can be plenty opinionated, are super-cozy with bureaucratic and industry pooh-bahs and usually don't report scandals or revelations until other parties unearth them. There are two notable exceptions, one being the country's rambunctious longtime satirical rag Le Canard enchaîné, which is sort of like The Onion if it were to publish all manner of leaks, confirmed or not. (The name means "the chained-up duck," though in France duck is slang for newspaper.)

The other is the six-year-old online startup Mediapart, which has brought aggressive investigative reporting to France with a successful subscriber-only, no-ads business model. It has impressively terrified the country's clubby political elite by exposing their dirty deals. It also doesn't have a political lean: It not only broke news in 2010 of L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, France's richest woman, allegedly giving illegal campaign money to former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy — a story that blew up into France's juiciest scandal in years — it also revealed last year that current Socialist President François Hollande's former hard-charging tax-enforcement minister had an illegal Swiss bank account. The fact that the site is thriving without ads while traditional media needs a government bailout suggests that French folks are hungry for deep-digging real news ... and are willing to pay for it.