France24 plans partnership with Mashable and raises questions of unfair competition

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Recently, the news of a joint project to be realised between French public information channel France24 and US private digital media website Mashable has created a big buzz. Indeed, both companies plan to launch an online media website covering tech and international news in French. France24 is since 2008 wholly owned by the French government and benefits from an annual 100 million € budget at its disposal. Mashable, instead, is a private online digital media website profiting from a large tech orientated readership around the world.

To this end, a common project between a public broadcaster, whose mission is to embody a French vision of information, and a pure private American player, technologically orientated and highly connected to social networks, seems, to say the least, surprising.

However, as Mashable intends to set foot in Europe with a well established social network partner, the idea of associating itself with a significant actor of international news coverage is indeed of great interest to the company. Indeed, it offers the opportunity to cover international news in French and to rely on France24’s expertise and broad implantation around the world. On the other end, for the public broadcaster, partnering with Mashable makes it possible to reach out to a large and well-connected digital community and to work on its presence on social networks which is key today to deliver information to the readership.

The project is intended to be financed equally by the two companies. France24 wants to use the money granted to them by the « Google fund », a sum of 1 000 000€, and which is expected to cover the initiation of the project. Afterwards, the expenses of the media should be covered by advertising. The budget is estimated to amount to 1 million € per year, including an internal editorial team of six to eight journalists.

Frédéric Bonnard, the director of new media at “France Media Monde”, the mother company of France 24, claimed: “The project is part of the contract of objectives and means (COM) that we are negotiating with the state. Everything was done in transparency and does not require new financial resources. We believe that this project is consistent with our mission, which is to provide a perspective on the world with a French touch. In this context, not to try to communicate with the young francophone generation would be a little curious”.

Several French media have sharply criticised this partnership. The managing editor of private newspaper “Libération”, Johan Hufnagel protested in an online editorial against the announcement of the launch of a French version of the US site Mashable in partnership with the public channel France24. He accuses the State to “uberise” news media by allowing this partnership between a public and a private player, putting additional pressure on several private media which are already facing financial difficulties for many years despite considerable state subsidies.

Indeed, running an online newspaper and ensuring its financial stability is far from easy and can only be sustained by innovation and investment. To this end, Hufnagel states: “ The fact that France24 wants to develop its website by focusing on quality is good, it has a readership and a mission, but that France24 competes with information sites in an area that is not its own, namely the technology sector and without sticking to the same rules as private actors is a whole different story.” According to him, public media should not have to compete with private actors who already exist, mostly if the public company profits from government funding.

Are Mashable and France24 going to compromise the competition on the market?

“Not if it can be proven that no state funding is going to be involved”, promises Sylvain Attal, Assistant Director of France24. However, even without any public funding, the interest for Mashable to team up with France 24 would probably not be the same if the latter could not rely on its expertise, privileged contacts and relations around the globe in the coverage of world news. And this expertise has been built on government funds. Further, if the partnership between Mashable and France24 is said only to target a well-connected, tech-orientated readership estimated mostly to be around 20-35 years of age, making it debatable whether it competes directly with a newspaper like Libération, it for sure competes with every other private media targeting as well younger people and that cannot rely on a notorious partnership with a well known public news broadcaster.

What is true for this particular issue is true for many new economic players such as Uber or Airbnb and more generally for new economic actors who shake up the market.

Monopolies or oligopolies are the worst creations of our market economy. We nowadays know too many of them, no matter if in the IT business or the agri-food industry. If the partnership between France24 and Mashable is not going to establish a monopoly on the market, the root of the problem remains the same. If competition is most vital to the market, and new economic players have to be able to get access to this market, it is also critical that new players are submitted to the same regulations and market restrictions as every other longer established actor. All these examples give us one and only lesson: every player, no matter old or new, needs to have equal cards in his hands. Market competition is not a utopia; it is simply a challenging political task to fulfill, implying the need to impose the necessary regulation to avoid any abuse of dominant market positions. Partnerships like the one France24 and Mashable intend to form are most likely going to enhance competition on the market, but not in fair terms and risk to compromise the « well-being », or what remains of it, of several actors within the private media industry.

Mashable is an exciting news and report website and there is no doubt its implantation in France would be an enrichment for the French tech world. The aim of these lines is therefore not to be dissuasive to an implantation of Mashable in the Hexagon, but simply to underline the importance of fair competition on the private media market, without which independent and quality journalism are likely to be compromised on a longer term.

Published for RudeBaguette on September 8th 2015

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