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Dossier Free media: issues, challenges and proposals

Funding Independent Media

After Charlie Hebdo, a mass grave?

, by BOISTEL Sébastien

In the aftermath of the attack on the weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, funding initiatives for independent media were created. Though welcome, these initiatives are proving not only inadequate but also particularly ill-suited to the needs and challenges faced by independent media organizations.

It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But perhaps the reverse is also true. After all, isn’t it a rather poetic blow to Daesh that the attack on Charlie Hebdo has not only breathed new life into a dying magazine, but also revolutionized independent media funding? [1]

Before January 7, 2015, such media (rags, pirate radio stations, unorthodox television stations, and websites with a preference for the side roads rather than the information highway) were the blind spot of the State’s involvement in funding pluralism.

Historically, only community radio — by far the most organized sector — benefitted from long-term funding: the fund to support radio broadcasting. Television broadcasters were still licking their wounds after a fight in the early 2000s to get “must carry” [2] has fought with mainstream audiovisual operators to gain a place on cable or satellite broadcast. status, websites were fighting to get the same VAT rate as paper publications… who themselves were trying to survive on subsidized contracts, local community funding, small earnings from advertising, reader generosity and the energy of their contributors.

Symbolic? A few months before the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Coordination permanente des médias libres (Permanent coalition of free media) was born with the chant: “What is independent media? Everything that media should be. What has it been until now? Nothing. What does it want? To be recognized as a part of the media industry.”

Picture:Permanent coalition of free media

At the time, there was a proposed amendment to extend to independent media a tax exemption for donations in support of press organizations. However, the man who inspired this action – Charb, Charlie Hebdo’s managing editor – will never see it implemented. A few weeks before his death, he was interviewed by the newspaper L’Humanité in an article called “La presse satirique va-t-elle disparaître ?” (Is satirical press going to disappear?).

January 2015 brought chaos in ministries and around newsstands. The government suddenly discovered the media organizations that they had ignored until Charlie, praising the work of “those who champion information and stimulate public debate every day.” And the Minister of Culture, Fleur Pellerin, pledged “a million” for this satirical magazine, promising that it would finally be able to benefit from press subsidies. Better late than never…

Except that the Ministry, rushed and in uncharted territory, is cobbling together a rough compromise. It is not alone. In early 2015, during a speech to the press, the president of the Conseil général (Regional Council) of Bouches-du-Rhône, Jean-Noël Guérini, told anyone who would listen that he was, like everyone else, pro-Charlie. He was then called out by a satirical newspaper, Le Ravi. Le Ravi is now in receivership, mainly because the Conseil général reduced its financial contributions by 90%. So when Guérini was asked whether being pro-Charlie didn’t also make him pro-Ravi, he offered to personally buy back the newspaper!

With regards to subsidies for those who have been flying under the radar, it’s hardly any less ridiculous. Previously a privilege accorded only to “dailies”, the subsidy for publications with limited advertising resources will be expanded. But it will exclude Paris since it will continue to be restricted to “national” publications. Au revoir “regional” newspapers!

And yet, not everyone has the good fortune of the organizations in Rhône-Alpes affiliated with the “Médias Citoyens” network, to have as its interlocutor a community able to implement “multi-year funding agreements”. As for the motion to support “citizen media”, which was adopted in summer 2015 in Paca by the regional council [3], it has unfortunately confirmed that proactive positioning of a local institution is more of an exception than the rule.

In the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, it will be necessary to “push” at the national level so that a dialogue is opened between the independent media sector and the Ministry of Culture. This dialogue — initiated by, among others, the Coordination permanente des médias libres, Médias Citoyens, Acrimed… — is part of a broader reflection that includes the one led by, for example, the Monde Diplomatique, in particular its associate editor Pierre Rimbert, who argues in favour of a complete overhaul of press subsidies and the implementation of a “shared production infrastructure and information distribution service”.

After a series of meetings and the appointment of Independent Media Official Jérôme Bouvier (former Radio France moderator and organizer of France’s annual journalism symposium, Assises du Journalisme), the government decided to “test the waters” in 2015 through a call for project proposals in support of “local media organizations”. Despite a meager budget of one million euros, the call attracted 462 applications, only about a hundred of which were accepted by the Ministry.

After this dry run, the “support fund for local media organizations” finally saw the light of day in summer 2016. A total of 1.5 million euros was distributed among 108 media outlets (out of 269 applicants) with grants of between 9,000 and 18,000 euros (and grants of 5,000 euros for certain media organizations that needed to “catch up”) — not the way to gain financial security, especially when compared to the 30 million euros allocated to FSER (support funds for local radio expression) or the billion allocated to “classic” press subsidies.

But, beyond this, what raises questions is the initiative’s fragility and the criteria that govern it. And fragile it is because it arises from an implementation decree. As acknowledged by the Ministry, “what is established by one decree can be abolished by another”.

Looking closely at the requirements prescribed by this decree, the concerns expressed by several media organizations who, the day after the deliberations of an “informal” committee on which they were not allowed to sit, wondered why this structure was chosen rather than another.

While the name “local social media organizations” may appear obscure, the decree itself is relatively precise. It defines media organizations that can claim this name based on their characteristics (employing “professional” journalists, producing “general and political information”…), the territory they serve (primary political area of the city, rural “revitalization” area…) and their missions: contribution to integration and to the fight against discrimination, media education, community involvement in the project, the ability to promote exchanges between social and cultural groups, and the expression of various sociocultural currents, contribution to local development and environmental protection…

Some will question the fact that the Ministry is supporting pluralism by funding activities that go beyond simply producing information. But what never ceases to amaze is that the decree does not rank specific criteria for approval. After an initial review by the DRACs (Regional Directorates of Cultural Affairs), the Ministry of Culture, refusing to spread funding too thinly, distinguishes between media organizations that meet all the criteria and those that meet most of the criteria, naturally dismissing those that meet none.

In practice, however, not ranking the various criteria for approval opens the way for any and all interpretations and variations. Thus, some media organizations benefit from the fund while others, however similar, do not. Moreover, a return to “classic” press subsidies, such as those that support publications with limited advertising resources, underestimates the realities of circulation for these media organizations, the subsidy being so modest that it can only be described as a pittance.

These concerns were confirmed in summer 2017 with the allocation of support funds for the second consecutive year. Although an independent media representative was allowed to sit on the “informal” allocation committee and although, objectively, the number of funded media organizations increased (132 out of 264 applications), there was marked a “shift” in criteria. Preference was given to professionalism and local anchorage, while media education and participatory journalism appeared to be considered secondary activities — welcome but not essential. Not to mention a very “Parisian” view of publications whose wealth comes from the diversity of their geographic location, and a very “digital” focus for publications that are far from being purely “virtual”.

It was as if the presence of an independent media representative was justified because it was viewed, unfortunately, as a privilege rather than as a right that should be respected. This is especially important at a time when the bad news keeps piling up: decreased public funding, elimination of subsidized contracts… And one thing keeps showing up in current independent media business models: crowdfunding, calls for donations, subscriptions. Clearly, doing the news goes hand in hand with begging for money!

Recently, the Ministry of Culture stated its intention to focus on media education, particularly through initiatives such as “journalism residencies”. But besides the small budget (approximately 15.000 euros per media) and the underlying philosophy (similar to the fight against “radicalization” that is currently especially popular amongst politicians), these initiatives are bringing in media organizations that are poorly equipped deal with calls for tender and delivery. Not to mention what this means in terms of competition, opportunism and predatory practices.
Yet in recent years, the various actors appeared to overcome their differences and had begun to compensate for the lack of funds with policies of mutual aid and solidarity, including true systems of sharing, not only for content, but also for distribution and communication.

Criticizing press subsidies is both common and justified. Why not also criticize subsidies in support of independent media since they reinforce the adage that says “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”? It is certainly an understatement to say that the government and independent media are two separate worlds that, having long ignored each other, are now discovering each other little by little, a process marked by misunderstandings, awkwardness and mistakes.

But it’s not easy to be optimistic when one hears the French president heap abuse on the other penniless relative, public broadcasting, calling it a “disgrace to the French Republic”. In fact, in this land of “Enlightenment”, it is the treatment of the media that is literally disgraceful. Unless, in the wake of what happened to Charlie Hebdo, we are to content ourselves with a media landscape that is a mass grave.

Notes

[1Media that are neither owned by public powers nor by private owners whose profit is a primary objective.

[2Literally, the “obligation to broadcast” (or distribute). Community television (or "associative television" to use the French term)

[3This motion will include a €5000 grant which will allow Médias Citoyens Paca to evaluate the current state of third sector media in Southeastern France.

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This text was translated from french to english by Jennifer Azocar.

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