France’s leading media critic is obsessed with print journalism

French economist Julia Cagé has built an intellectual contraption that made her the wonder child of French media elite. While she opens interesting avenues to explore innovative media business models, her work is unfortunately filled with flaws and sometimes willfully disconnected from reality.

Julia Cagé embodies the new French elite. At 32, she is the offspring of the most selective segment of both French and American educational systems: Ecole Normale Supérieure, and Harvard where she got her PhD in economics in 2014. She is the kind of gifted person who speaks with the magisterial infallibility French culture grants to an alumni of such major institutions. She openly adheres to the most traditional ideas of the French Left, more pre-World War II Jaurès than 21st century Emmanuel Macron. This is what frames her media industry work. Armed with her glowing academic record and her political affiliation, she enjoys open access to a large segment of the French media sphere where her pontifications combine abundance and untroubled certitude. Not always right but never in doubt—and often interesting, that is Julia Cagé.

Last year, she published a book titled Sauvez Les Medias, capitalisme, financement participatif et démocratie. The short opus collected nice reviews from journalists traumatized by the sector’s ongoing downfall and eager to cling to any glimmer of hope. Sometimes, though, the cozy entre nous review process goes awry. This was the case when star economist Thomas Piketty published a rave book review in Libération, but failed to acknowledge his marital tie to Julia Cagé. In fact, Piketty imposed the review on Libération’s editors, threatening to pull his regular column from the paper if they did not oblige, and then refused to disclose his tie to Cagé; rather troubling from intellectuals who preach ethics and transparency.

The English version of her book was published last week in the United States (Saving the Media: Capitalism, Crowdfunding and Democracy, Harvard University Press).

The book would have deserved an adaptation rather than a mere translation. Very few English-speaking readers care about Libération (where I spent 12 years of my journalistic life), nor are they sensitive to the virtues of Ouest-France’s governance, or the merits of sociétés coopératives ouvrières (workers cooperatives—a sort of kolkhoz à-la-française). Gallic-centric analysis pollutes a book otherwise worth reading.

One of the most striking features of Julia Cagé as a media analyst is her… conservatism.

While she states that she is not defending the print press per se, she seems, in fact, obsessed by it. In the book, words referring to print media are used more than 180 times vs only three times for “pure players”; all references to digital media are in single digits. As for the word “newsroom,” it is used only eight times.

The same goes for the notion of who is and isn’t a journalist. The only definition mentioned by Julia Cagé is the one tied to the attribution of the French “Carte de Presse,” a contraption without equivalent anywhere else in the world. Not only is her definition of journalism the most restrictive of the genre, but it is also the most outdated. At a time where non-profit organizations such as the Global Editors Network or Reporters sans Frontières (I’m a board member of both) host continuing discussions of the definition of journalism, Cagé’s view is split between the narrowest, largely union-induced definition of “real” journalists, and what she condescendingly calls “Sunday bloggers.” She ought to know better. Many established journalists resting in comfy Western newsrooms actually rely on scores of courageous independent bloggers, the ones that, thankfully, NGOs like RSF or GEN passionately defend.

In the same way, she states that “[P]rint journalists have been replaced by computers specialists and Java experts.” Nice line, but untrue. In a reality she failed to explore, journalists and techies work in concert, and need each other.

On the economic side, Julia Cagé’s main idea is that current media ownership structures go against the primary mission of a democratic free press. Instead, she promotes a new model: a Non-Profit Media Organization or NMO.

In her own words, the NMO in a hybrid model that “[C]ombines features of both foundation and joint-stock companies.” According to that vision, funders are deprived of most of their voting rights because, in Julia Cagé’s parlance, “The power of money is the principal risk media face today.” Again, that’s an oversimplification. She should consider other hazards: ask journalists or bloggers who write under Islamic dictatorships, or Mexican reporters who must face the terror of drug cartels to do their jobs.

Coming back to her vision:

[The NMO] is inspired in part by the model of great international universities which combine commercial and non-commercial activities. But there is more to it than that. One goal is to secure permanent financing for the media by freezing their capital. A second goal is to limit he decision-making power of outside shareholders with constraining bylaws.

Among those ways and means, Julia Cagé advocates tax breaks to favor investment in media. In France, as in many other countries (she provides insightful details on this subject), there is already an abundance of tax provisions favoring the news business. There, she seems to defend a selective approach: “Some [media companies] are owned by large corporations such as Dassault Aviation, which owns Le Figaro, so why shouldn’t they be taxed like any other corporation?” In other words, if a newspaper is owned by an airplane maker such as Dassault, its media subsidiary should be deprived of any tax exemption. Then, what about Libération, now owned by telecom mogul Patrick Drahi? What about Norwegian group Schibsted that makes tons on money with classified ads, and also operates news organizations under the strictest ethics and guaranteed independence to its editors (I used to be one of them for six years)?

Cagé most likely did not have enough time to dive further into the reality and diversity of the trade.

When reading her book, one can but wonder what sort of investor—even the best-intentioned kind—would seriously be willing to put money in a system in which most of the decision-power is then transferred to non-investing shareholders (society of readers, groups of individuals donors, staff, and so on…). Every manager in a news organization, wether she operates in the newsroom or in the C-suite, knows that a kolkhoz-like structure where everyone has a say in management decisions is the worst possible option. It prevents any reactivity to unforeseen circumstances (a normal occurrence in today’s fast-changing environment); it hinders risk-taking and the ability to make swift and harsh business decisions if risk-taking is punished; it encourages settling for the lowest common denominator and septic demagoguery, especially when it comes to appointing an editor. It is admittedly difficult to quantify, but my experience says that letting a board of trustees (such as Schibsted’s or others) appoint an editor is a much safer bet than resorting to a “democratic” staff vote that ends up binding the elected editor in a straightjacket of electoral promises. When Julia Cagé cites The Guardian Media Group as a great example of both independence and journalistic excellence, she fails to mention that the paper has burned through £340 million ($480 million) in ten years, a cash bleed that threatens the financial sustainability of its benefactor, the Scott Trust.

Saving The Media is weakened both by its superficiality and its underlying ideology. As an example, she predictably jumps on the anti-Google bandwagon, describing the search giant as “[The] editor-in-chief for newspaper websites.” She disregards the fact that news organizations and Google share mutual, intertwined, interests. Perhaps more importantly, she fails to explore Facebook’s role: Mark Zuckerberg’s company now is indeed the most powerful, universal, and pernicious filter ever encountered by the news industry.

Despite its obvious flaws, and the fact that it is primarily a vector for Julia Cagé’s resolute self-promotion, her work is worth a look in an age when new models must be explored to contribute to the survival of a news sector we love and very much need.

This post originally appeared at Monday Note.

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