Despite the common idea that the internet is “killing” the media, the past decade has seen ongoing renewal in journalism, particularly online. In a 2012 article (Christensen et al., 2012), David Skok, a journalist who was a Nieman Lab fellow, paired up with Harvard economist Clayton M. Christensen to encourage the media to “be the disruptor”. Together, they adapted Christensen’s original theory of disruptive innovation to the media, according to which businesses should regularly rethink their practice to match the evolving society and market competition. “Disruption” has since become a very popular word amongst the adepts of innovation in news, often quoted at journalism conferences and festivals as well as in experts’ reports. Some examples:
This article will focus on a selection of digital native media, commonly called “pure players”, in France. The first of such ventures to be launched were
Pure players can’t compete with sites that rely on press companies supported by shareholders with greater financial capacity than their own. Moreover, they cannot produce the same economy of scale in terms of news production through the synergy of industrial, technological and editorial functions. Lastly, they do not benefit from the same recognition amongst financial investors, advertisers and sources. (Damian-Gaillard et al., 2009: 12-13)
Despite this diagnosis being shared by other scholars (Ramrajsingh, 2011; Smyrnaios, 2013), a strong diversity of “pure players” has continued to surface during the past decade, in France and abroad. These also include media created by journalists who have decided to leave their jobs in corporate newsrooms. According to these media’s declarations of purpose and their promotional content, the founding journalists are motivated by the opportunity to create something from scratch and have control over both the business and the editorial processes – aspects that were missing from their previous job.
Building on this earlier research, this article attempts to identify what has persisted and what has changed, asking what kind of standards may have settled for pure players today. How is the journalistic work organized, how is revenue made and – consequently – what does this mean for the journalistic profession more generally? Furthermore, we ask whether the precarious conditions in the early years of a pure player’s existence provide a context in which the journalistic profession is “disrupted” and begins to be shaped by more entrepreneurial ideals and values.
This research focuses on a selection of four digital journalism start-ups that were established between 2013 and 2017:
Each pure player was subject to an analysis that entailed three complementary methodologies. An analysis of the meta-discourses (of and about the media in question) helped to outline their editorial identities: it considered the published declarations of intention (such as the column “Who are we?” or “About us”, a manifesto or a blog and the reference to any awarded prizes or positive comments made by other media), the means used by the journalists to develop a relationship with their readers (newsletters, polls and events) and the content posted on their crowdfunding pages (project description, counterparts for funders and references to and by other media).
Interviews were also carried out with a founder from each of the pure players. The questions focused on personal training and professional paths, internal responsibilities, accounts of the media’s creation, the team’s organization, the working conditions, the business model and the future plans. Every interview lasted between an hour and a half and two hours. The interviews were conducted during the first year and a half after the launch and within the first six months of the interviewee’s role as an editor-in-chief. A one-off interview with these founding journalists limited our ability to gather a broader idea of the company’s dynamics in the long run. Nevertheless, it was useful for understanding the amounts of preparation and spontaneity that went into the project and how the necessary experience and competences were acquired. This shed light on several specifics regarding what it means to be a journalist in the constantly and rapidly evolving competitive context of online cultural industries and how these demands can be fitted to an attempt to re-establish the social role of journalism.
Lastly, field notes were taken during visits to some of the media locations. Observations about the way in which the work space was organized were not always possible (because there were no offices or because visiting was complicated). In these cases, notes were made according to the journalists’ description of the internal organization. Far from being just a detail in the creation of these news media companies, the way in which the workplace is organized turned out to be very informative with regard to the contemporary conditions of journalism practice.
A short description of each medium follows. In order of creation,
These four media perpetuate and strengthen the idea of pure players as being built on a specific critique of journalism’s lack of independence (as remarked by Smyrnaios, 2013). However, this critique not only targets the journalistic defects stemming from offline practices but also critically identifies a set of online practices that are considered to interfere with journalism’s independence.
These pure players were created in a highly evolutive and competitive context, comparable to the conditions known to high-tech start-ups (Stark & Girard, 2009). In addition, Coddington (2015) observed that these “startup news organizations” are characterized by the erosion of the business–newsroom boundary that is common to both the French and the USA context, albeit built on different histories and journalistic genre rhetoric (Coddington, 2015; Ruellan, 2011). Nevertheless, the enthusiasm for technology that commonly defines start-ups tends to be overshadowed in these pure players’ rhetoric by the idea of quality journalism being liberated from certain technological specificities (automatization and live reporting). This sometimes entails choosing to be absent from platforms and deciding not to use certain tools that are said to create more visibility and subsequent advertising revenue (Smyrnaios, 2015), somewhat tempering newsrooms’ increasing reliance on audience metrics (Anderson, 2011). This creates a challenging situation in which the journalists in charge attempt to balance the editorial independence with the ability to make a liveable revenue. To build their media from scratch, enabling them to have control over the editorial and economic dimensions, these risk-taking journalists strategically adapt (Pailliart et al., 2007) by acquiring new competences, accommodating new forms of internal organization and adjusting their rhetoric.
In seeking to create online media that correspond to their own professional ideals and that are adapted to, yet critical of, the latest technological developments, these journalists’ pure players share several characteristics with high-tech start-ups. They continuously test their product to adapt to the changing context (Stark & Girard, 2009). They emphasize a low level of hierarchy, with everybody on the team holding specific yet evolving responsibilities (Dupuy, 2013; Stark, 2009). Their work environments are also organized in new ways: they are mobile, open and economical. Damian-Gaillard and colleagues (2009) had already observed this in 2009, yet the adaptability that highlighted the precariousness of these ventures now tends to be increasingly professionalized and institutionalized. Furthermore, despite the critical stance towards some effects of technology, the weakening of the boundary between business and news tends to be normalized (Coddington, 2015).
One characteristic that defines both pure players and technological start-ups is the continuous testing of their product, both pre- and post-launch, with their readers. All four pure players experienced a pilot period that varied in length according to the medium. In three cases out of four, this period was based on test interaction with potential future readers. This served promotional as well as research and development purposes. This interaction played out in various ways and sometimes persisted after the medium’s launch.
In the case of
We took the answers into consideration but did not always act upon them […]. The idea isn’t to do what people ask us to do, it is to take their opinion into account in order to offer a service better in sync with our readers. (Laurent Mauriac, interview, 18 May 2016)
Other publications based this relationship on regular meetings with their readers. These happened before the launching of the media, as was the case for
The relationship that these media developed with their readers helps in keeping track of the audience’s satisfaction. Raphaël Garrigos, from
The flexibility that defines start-ups is also identifiable in the pure players’ internal hierarchy during the first few years of their existence. In her article focusing on “internet workers” in charge of innovative projects at Le Monde Interactif, Camille Dupuy (2013: 26) observed a heterarchical configuration (Stark, 2009) in the newsroom: “a flexible organisation in which hierarchical relations are diminished, thus favoring innovation in the logics of an ongoing project” (Dupuy, 2013). Heterarchy is described as dynamic in her article, evolving from one project to another.
All four pure players were created by more than one founder.
Turning an idea into a project from scratch considerably reduces the potential for disagreements and power struggles when it is undertaken as a team, because everyone endorses a decider’s status or specific competences. The team grows according to the pure player’s needs, making the newcomers essential. For example, during the interviews, all four journalists reported being in the process of including a new “associate” (an investor for some and a new co-founder for others) with entrepreneurial, financial or marketing competences. Amélie Mougey stressed the reciprocal relationship that this entails: “She’s graduating from marketing school. It takes us four days to do what she does in just two hours. And she’s also hoping to develop her career path in journalism.” Nicolas Barriquand similarly described the need for specific competences but also highlighted the candidates’ affinities with journalism:
He’s an entrepreneur through and through, but he’s also a journalism man at heart because he understands that you do not sell the press the way you’d sell yogurts or cream cheese. We share the values that are conveyed by the project. He’s a man who believes in media. (Nicolas Barriquand, interview, 3 May 2017)
New members’ affinities with journalism and the media being built, whether they are journalists, sales people or programmers, are secured not only by the size of the team but also by the written outline of the medium’s editorial identity. This text, often in the form of a chart or a manifesto, is published on the pure player’s site before its official launch date. It establishes a moral contract with the medium’s potential readers. It also rhetorically backs up the context and the values that bring the team together and contributes to normalizing the proximity between specific market- and technical-driven competences and journalists’ traditional editorial skills. Damian and colleagues (2009) mentioned the flexibility of these ventures’ hierarchy and associated it with the frustration and work overload experienced by some of the newsroom’s journalists. In contrast, most of the team members of this sample of pure players are founders, giving them a managerial role, rather than being subject to others’ decisions.
The workplace often plays a part in the identity of corporate media, whether we are thinking of journalists referring to
The workplace descriptions varied between these pure players, but they all highlighted the importance of the cost of rent in the company’s budget. Two of the four pure players did not have an office at the time of the interview.
We first started meeting at my place, and then soon afterwards, we found a co-working location that was free for three months. When those three months were up, we left that noisy space and moved from one of our homes to another one until we came here in September 2016. (Raphaël Garrigos, interview, 2 May 2017)
With an 80 square metre newsroom,
These pure players’ similarities to start-ups highlight the readjustment of the traditional newsroom–business boundary, often referred to as “the wall” (Coddington, 2015), through the normalizing of market-driven competences and postures in proximity to or in the hands of journalists. Coddington specified that the erosion of “the wall” is common in online media businesses due to higher competition, and it is particularly visible in the “use of tools to quantify audience interest [serving] to replace news judgment with a thin, incomplete view of the audience driven by commercial considerations rather than professional ones” (Coddington, 2015: 144). However, it is interesting to note that, in the case of our sample, the journalists in charge also rhetorically readjusted their distance with regard to metrics and the audience (through the critiques of online practices that appear in their project descriptions) to safeguard their traits of autonomy and independence.
All four media share one common characteristic in their project descriptions: the will to be
When announcing that their media will be independent (including the funding model for three out of the four media), these pure players aim to depend on subscriptions in the long term, such as their quoted model
Several of the journalists whom we interviewed said that they had invested most of their severance pay in the medium. The severance pay was allocated by the medium that they worked for previously, and, in France, this is calculated by multiplying their latest salary with the number of years spent at the medium. In parallel with their severance pay, journalists usually also receive unemployment benefits. Three of the four journalists interviewed stated that they were living off this allowance. One of the journalists said: “I have a certain financial security that is provided by my unemployment benefits. In this way, I can devote at least half of my time to the media.”
In addition to unemployment benefits, French unemployed citizens are followed up by employment services on a monthly basis. These services offer training programmes for those with a concrete project. The founders of
Other means of public funding sometimes arise during the first few years after launching a medium. The French Ministry of Culture offers a selection of grants and awards For a list of these grants, see:
For a list of these grants, see:
These direct and indirect means of public funding mostly serve during the launching of the project. The fact that they may not cater specifically to journalism or that they rely on criteria oriented by public policy leads to the question of just how independent these projects actually are from the start. This does not include the funding and support that private firms, such as Google and Facebook, provide, but, at the time of the interviews, none of the four pure players had submitted a project to these platforms. As a result of a lawsuit against Google won by French authorities in 2013, Google had to pay 150 million euros to French media over the course of three years and decided to do so in the form of a grant that would award innovative media projects. This fund was made European in 2016 and renames the Digital News Innovation Fund.
As a result of a lawsuit against Google won by French authorities in 2013, Google had to pay 150 million euros to French media over the course of three years and decided to do so in the form of a grant that would award innovative media projects. This fund was made European in 2016 and renames the Digital News Innovation Fund.
All four of the pure players benefitted from a crowdfunding campaign, and all campaigns managed to exceed their targets. All except
A summary of the four pure players’ crowd-funding campaigns
|July 2016||November 2014||June 2015||April 2017|
|10,000 €||500 contributors||50,000 €||25,000 €|
|10,850 €||886 contributors (23,070 €)||> 80,000 €||25,481 €|
There are more benefits to be obtained from this operation than just a one-off financial gain. Indeed, it is a good promotional opportunity that generally receives good media coverage from peers. Furthermore, our analysis revealed that some of the contributors were journalists, among whom were founders of other pure players, suggesting solidarity within new media. As mentioned earlier in regard to
Moreover, those who submit their projects to these platforms are given marketing advice (fed by the platforms’ statistics) on how best to organize their campaign. This guidance is provided throughout the process, before the launch (in summarizing the project and planning the contributions), during its running time (to promote it in internal and then in external circles) and afterwards (when sending out the rewards). Again, marketing competences are introduced to journalists, entrusted by these platforms to succeed with their campaigning.
Public allowances, emerging grants and crowdfunding can only provide so much financial security. According to Nielsen (2016: 64), the level of “competition is intense” and “the basic economics of digital media suggests that the market will sustain fewer people pursuing journalism as a profession”. Whilst attempting to develop a large enough number of subscribers from which to exist “independently”, pure players’ founders look for other ways to secure capital, and investment remains a common method, as described by Smyrnaios (2013).
The founders are the main investors in all four media. The percentage of outside investment was argued to have been reduced to maintain independence. For example, Raphaël Garrigos from
It is not just about money, people will also be able to take part in decisive discussions as equals. They will be financial partners, as well as editorial ones. We will ask our “friends” to decide on a yearly story that we will investigate. (Raphaël Garrigos, interview, 2 May 2017)
Amendments to the French “Bloche law” were passed in 2016 to help with the creation of independent media, opening up the possibility for individuals to invest in media shares up to a maximum of 1,000 euros per person (30 per cent of this investment is tax deductible). The
Again, instead of focusing their rhetoric on the financial challenges encountered, these start-ups encourage their audience to move closer to the medium and play a bigger role in its existence, not only for consulting purposes but also financially, arguing that this is what will allow it to stay independent.
This stresses that, ultimately, the relationship that these pure players maintain with their audience is used to justify their acquisition of non-traditional journalistic competences, such as marketing or management, in the name of searching for the most independent means of existence possible.
Guided by passion, the pure player marks an important professional turn for all four interviewees. This is reflected by these journalists’ professional situation prior to founding the new media and their dedication to updating and developing their skills as well as accumulating responsibilities. In previous research by Isabelle Pailliart and Laurie Schmitt (Paillart et al., 2017), it was suggested that having a strategic posture was to be considered as having a part in what could be called the “journalistic capital”, borrowing from Bourdieu’s use of the concept. In this case, could these founders’ strategic skills be feeding the figure of an “entrepreneurial journalist”?
The four journalists interviewed belong to different generations, and their career paths vary in length and experience. However, they all had to develop new skills for the pure player.
Amélie Mougey, the only woman amongst our interviewees, was a recent Master’s graduate in journalism. Amélie Mougey had been employed on long-term and permanent contracts in a national newspaper and a monthly magazine. In January 2014, she and five other members of the Master’s degree course decided to relaunch their school project professionally as a side project to their main journalistic positions. When the medium that she was working for closed in March 2016, she decided to dedicate more time to
Nicolas Barriquand, one of the seven founders of
As mentioned before, Laurent Mauriac, one of the founders of
Both Raphaël Garrigos and Isabelle Roberts, the co-founders of
When questioned, all the co-founders specified that they had extra responsibilities on top of being editor-in-chief. Nicolas Barriquand presented himself as “co-founder, associate on the
There is no daily routine. […] I’m still recruiting writers for
Laurent Mauriac described his role as being “president of the company, one of its main funders, head of publication, co-founder and editor-in-chief”. He added:
There are days during which I am focused on technique […] There are other days during which I deal more with emails to the readers. […] I deal with marketing quite a lot, and other aspects of a company’s management. (Laurent Mauriac, interview, 18 May 2016)
Part of Amélie Mougey’s work is also dedicated to marketing, including designing brochures and prospecting places across France that could be interested in
Accumulating roles and jobs has become common for journalists several years after graduation before they reach a stable professional situation (Leteinturier, 2014). Working on “innovative formats” (whether in terms of editorial content, management or technology) in precarious work conditions, such as the web documentaries that were externalized by media corporations in the mid-2000s, are ways for journalists to develop and highlight sought-after skills borrowed from other professions (Salles & Schmitt, 2017). For these interviewees, creating a new medium from scratch offers various opportunities: developing experience in a niche area of journalism, becoming aware of the variety of tasks to be undertaken in a media company and that are traditionally foreign to journalists and controlling these in a context rhetorically justified as being “a journalists’ project”. Nevertheless, both the accumulation of tasks and the required flexibility are revealing of the precarious risk-taking context in which these journalists undertake these roles.
Ultimately, it is the figure of an entrepreneur–journalist that looms in the practices of these pure player-founding journalists rather than that of an unemployed journalist. Indeed, these journalists take on the responsibility of founding their own company and make use of their precarious work conditions to be more flexible by trying and testing various formats, whether with regard to the editorial content, the management or the funding. These journalists are “heroical” (Schumpeter, 1911, 1990) risk takers in that they “disrupt the areas in which they intervene, break routines and subvert stabilised power relations and instituted hierarchies” (Bergeron et al., 2013: 264), deciding to do so rather than to stay in secure jobs in which they are not happy. Although entrepreneurial competences are not the norm when describing the journalistic profession, they are not exactly new either. Indeed, rarely described as required skills for the job, they are often inherent to being a freelance journalist who manages, coordinates and promotes his or her articles alone.
In this case, the journalists enjoy the additional empowering responsibility of being a founder of their own medium, making their precarious financial setting something that they have chosen for their own values over the status quo. These founding journalists thus correspond to the model of a worker who thrives on developing personally and maintaining certain values through professional activity, according to the new spirit of capitalism (Boltanski & Chiapello, 1999).
In France, entrepreneurial skills are still formally separated from journalism, in schools by the CPNEJ (the French commission for journalists’ employment) and professionally by the CCIJP (the commission devoted to attributing journalists’ professional cards), which does not recognize those who are paid for journalistic work as having the status of an “auto-entrepreneur”.
This figure of journalism, the entrepreneur–journalist, highlights journalists’ adaptability to the constraining and evolving context in which they work. Regardless of whether these pure players will survive, these journalists have developed new competences that could open up new professional opportunities.
In an increasingly precarious professional context (Frisque et al., 2011), creating one’s own medium is a way of attempting to regain control over the journalistic environment and reaffirm the classic professional values: independence and autonomy. These are referred to by the media as what protects editorial content – the “cultural capital of journalism” – from outsiders (whether investors, amateurs or technologies), who are the “economic capital of journalism”, according to Bourdieu’s analysis (1998; Benson & Neveu, 2009). Despite the persistence of these values in an attempt to safeguard editorial content through specific practices (immersion and investigation), several evolutions are to be noted. Firstly, these pure players’ critiques of journalism’s faults now include a set of online practices: click-bait, abundant and automatized forms of news. Secondly, this feeds the journalists’ arguments that their pure player must be a journalists’ project only, therefore justifying their “requisitioning” (Jeanne-Perrier et al., 2015; Salles, 2018) of responsibilities and skills that are usually foreign to journalists. Thirdly, although their medium has become paid for, the interaction with readers has intensified to the point of including them in research and development before and after the media’s launch. This contributes to readjusting the boundaries with the audience in an attempt to increase the proximity and empower it in an area that does not
A summary of the four pure players’ crowd-funding campaigns
|July 2016||November 2014||June 2015||April 2017|
|10,000 €||500 contributors||50,000 €||25,000 €|
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