Since it was created in 2008 Mediapart has been an exception on the media landscape: a daily journal that is completely digital, completely participative and completely independent; a press publication that survives solely on the support of its readers with no advertising income or state grants; a media entity created and controlled by journalists. Based on the values of news – the professional value of investigation, the democratic value of independence, the economic value of subscription – the success of this gamble has opened the way to a new-found trust between journalism and the public.
The economic side of Mediapart is every bit as under-estimated as its journalism has become well-known. Mediapart is alone among the daily political and general news press outlets in France in having its capital controlled from the start by the journalists who founded it. There is no conflict of interests, no mixing of different approaches, and no dependence on interests outside the world of news. Guaranteed by the support of your subscriptions – as we like to say “Only our readers can buy us” - this economic independence contrasts with the situation of the rest of the media owned by financiers and industrialists who are more concerned with the protection of their own private interests than the defence of the general interest.
Mediapart's economic independence is currently guaranteed by the control of its capital by its four co-founders - François Bonnet, Laurent Mauduit, Edwy Plenel and Marie-Hélène Smiejan-Wanneroy, who are co-signatories of this article. They own 42.08% of it inside an independent grouping (made up of founders, the Employees' Society and a Society of Friends) which in total represents 62% of the capital. The remainder of the capital belongs to two long-standing investment partners (they have been involved since the start in 2008): Doxa (31.81%) and Ecofinance (6.32%).
Since Mediapart's creation the founders' control has been exercised through their influence on the board of directors, where all the enterprise's strategic decisions are taken: out of seven directors, the four co-founders and the president of the Society of Friends (Michel Broué) occupy five positions. The two remaining ones are reserved for two external directors proposed by the board and chosen by the shareholders' general assembly. They are currently Sébastien Sassolas and François Vitrani.
The question of how to make this economic independence permanent beyond the presence of the four co-founders has thus been present from the start. The founders have always stated their wish to transfer the control of the online journal to its team, in circumstances which guarantee its permanent independence. To put it another way, it has never been their intention to sell Mediapart to the highest bidder, to pass it on to their beneficiaries or to float it on the stock market. That goes without saying but it is still worth stating. It was then a question of finding the best, most inventive and most robust solution so that the handing over of the control of Mediapart by its founders to its team could be done in a way to protect its independence in a lasting manner.
This research has been going on for three years, in consultation with the Mediapart team. It culminates today in an unprecedented solution which, proposed by the co-founders, has been approved by Mediapart's staff and its shareholders. A vote by the entire team took place on Monday June 24th in which the proposed solution was approved by 93.43% of those who took part, with 91.56% of those eligible to do so voting.
The options already tried by employee shareholders on newspapers (the Société des Rédacteurs at Le Monde and the Société Civile des Personnels at Libération) were not chosen. The lessons of the past – the purchase in the end of the newspapers concerned by private interests outside the news profession – shows that they are unable to resist the pressures when financial difficulties arise and that, moreover, they give rise to internal power struggles. A similar view was taken about the use of cooperative structures (SCOP or SCIC) for a daily political and general news organisation.
The option that was finally chosen has just one precedent, in another democratic culture – liberal in the English sense of the word – which contrasts with the constraints of the French system: and that is the Scott Trust. Since 1936 this trust has guaranteed the independence of the British daily newspaper The Guardian and protects its future (see articles in English here, here, here and here). Mediapart is thus going to transfer 100% of its capital into a a not-for-profit structure which, by ring-fencing and protecting it, will mean it can never be bought or sold, or be the subject of financial speculation.
This Fonds pour une Presse Libre (FPL) ('Fund for a Free Press') will be created by Mediapart's co-founders and the current president of the employees' society (Martine Orange), joined together in an Association pour le Droit de Savoir (ADS) ('Association for the Right to Know'). It will protect Mediapart's economic future and editorial independence by holding its capital via an intermediary structure called the Société pour la Protection de l’Indépendance de Mediapart (SPIM).
Our choice, then, is to prolong the creation of Mediapart by an innovative solution within the framework of existing French law; the ownership of 100% of Mediapart's capital by an endowment fund, which is a not-for-profit structure (see here, here and here), will prevent any purchase or seizing of control by private economic interests. In this way Mediapart's independence will be guaranteed and protected by these structures.
On top of ring-fencing Mediapart's capital, the Fonds pour une Presse Libre (FPL) will also have its own general interest objective, helping the journalistic profession and the public: and this will be to promote, help and defend the freedom of the press, guarantee the right to know and the freedom to speak out, support press pluralism and to protect its independence. Its actions are in line with the notion of general interest objective inscribed in the French Constitution and supported by the European Court of Human Rights.
The objective of the FPL is to contribute to the carrying out, respect and protection of these democratic principles at a time of upheavals caused by the digital revolution. It aims to ensure that this change does not become synonymous with a loss of pluralism in the press, a loss of independence on the part of editorial teams and a reduction in the freedom of information. Its creation has become all the more necessary given the fact that attacks on the freedom to inform are increasing in number in France today, in an international context where democracies are becoming more authoritarian.
Under its general interest mission, the Fonds pour une Presse Libre will be able to receive donations which will attract reduced tax under a law which applies to individuals and companies when they contribute to causes deemed in the general interest, in particular in defence of fundamental rights. However, these donations will in no way benefit Mediapart, which will for its part have to seek to pay part of its profits to the FPL's general interest cause.
In the future, and while remaining a commercial enterprise whose sole income is the subscription from its readers, Mediapart will thus be controlled by a non-capitalist structure, removed from any demands to make a profit and whose only concern is the general interest. The FPL, which will control Mediapart's capital via the SPIM, will not however be able to interfere in its day to day management nor its editorial policy. The SPIM must simply aim to protect Mediapart's future by the creation of financial reserves.
All the shareholders gave their backing for the plan at the end of June, and so Mediapart's second founding will taken place between now and the end of September 2019, in line with the terms and conditions set out during a press conference on July 2nd 2019. They are outlined in a downloadable brochure (La conférence de presse du 2 juillet 2019 (pdf, 1.7 MB) whose main points can be found in the 'more' tab in this article.
In the secret manifesto of the wartime Conseil National de la Résistance (CNR), freedom of the press was immediately highlighted as a condition for “the establishment of the broadest-based democracy”. And for the CNR, this meant its “independence with regard to moneyed interests”.
“Any moral reform of the press will be in vain if it is not accompanied by appropriate political measures to guarantee newspapers a real independence in relation to capital,” wrote the French writer Albert Camus at the time of France's Liberation in 1944. This quote was used by Mediapart in the manifesto it wrote in 2009, a year after its creation: 'Combat pour une Presse Libre' ('Fight for a Free Press').
For more than half a century this demand was at the heart of the collective battles fought by journalists and editorial teams to ensure that their editorial independence would be guaranteed by the economic independence of their newspapers. The fact that they lost in the end, given the stranglehold of industrialists and financiers today on practicality all privately-owned French media, makes it even more important to pick up the torch.
It is this challenge that Mediapart's team has, collectively, decided to take on with the creation of this Fonds pour une Presse Libre which will guarantee its future while at the same time contributing to the struggle on behalf of the entire profession for the freedom of the press and for the independence of journalism. The newfound trust of the public comes from this freeing of the news from private interests to ensure that, from then on, the news is only there to serve the general interest.
The French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Michael Streeter