PARIS – You couldn’t dream of a better gift. For its fifth birthday, Mediapart and Edwy Plenel – its mustachioed founder and editor – saw a major minister in the French government resign and charged with tax fraud and a former President of the Republic probed in connection with taking advantage of an elderly political donor.

Mediapart is the investigative website that broke the original story that alleged that former-President Nicolas Sarkozy received cash-stuffed envelopes from ailing L’Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt in 2010. Then late last year, it also broke the story that then-Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac had secret Swiss bank accounts.

The website was the target of many critics, but its recent scoops have largely put a lid on those questioning the journalistic ethics of the website, accusing Mediapart of “vigilante” methods.

A huge blow to the right, a huge blow to the left, Mediapart cannot be accused of political bias. A sign posted on the walls of the website’s offices in Paris says, “Freedom of press is not a privilege of journalists, but a right of the people,” and indeed, the site presents itself as a “democracy watchdog.”

The Cahuzac and Bettencourt scandals are a perfect example of what Mediapart is here to do: track down the politicians who abuse their power, hide their money in offshore accounts, have conflict of interests, obtain dubious political funding. It has a nose for the corrupt and the making of closed-door deals between “oligarchs,” as Plenel likes to call them. 

Plenel, a longtime reporter and editor for Le Monde, is hardly new to the investigative game. In the 1980s, he was the one who revealed the Rainbow Warrior scandal, when the French government sent spies to New Zealand to sink a Greenpeace boat protesting French nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

Unlike the Anglo-Saxon press, investigative journalism has rarely been a central part of the press in France – “except during the 1980s and 90s,” explains sociologist and media specialist Jean-Marie Charon. During that period, many newspapers and magazines “gave investigative pieces a central role,” he says. At the time, there were many political scandals involving corruption and illegal financing.

A “newspaper without paper”

“In those years, the public had a high opinion of investigative journalism, but this is not the case any more," says Charon. "The public doesn’t like to see newspapers pursuing and hunting political figures. There is a belief that this kind of journalism contributed to the rise of populist parties, who campaign on the ‘everyone is corrupt’ platform.”

For Plenel, if France doesn’t like investigative journalism, it is because it is a “low-intensity democracy” that has a hard time “respecting the forces of opposition.” In that respect, Mediapart considers itself as “a small fish fighting the big sharks in a polluted sea.” Their goal, “is to clean up the sea,” says Plenel.

Photo: Raphael Labbé

Despite the public’s mistrust of investigative journalism, the “pure player” website founded in March 2008 is a great success. The audience of the "newspaper without paper,” to quote its founder, hasn’t stopped growing. Today the website has around 65,000 paying subscribers.

Mediapart is successful, but the situation is fragile,” says Plenel. He says it would be more comfortable with around 100,000 paying subscribers. Like its satiric cousin, French weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaine, Mediapart has no advertising and depends fully on its sales – an online subscription costs 9 euros a month. The website reached break-even at the end of 2010. It made a profit of 700,000 euros in 2012, with a turnover of about 6 million euros.

Mediapart has 45 employees, including 31 journalists. “Their salaries are slightly higher than the rest of the profession,” says Plenel proudly, speaking from his office located at the back of the newsroom, behind some big white bookshelves. “Mediapart is a lab where the 21st century press is being invented – we want to show that the Internet does not necessarily endanger the profession, that high-quality journalism can exist on the Internet.”

In other words that the digital world is not only a synonym for superficiality, immediacy and short formats.

How does such a small editorial team pull off so many incredible scoops? “When we were building the team, it was a priority to hire journalists who were able to investigate in a rigorous and a fierce way,” explains Francois Bonnet, the editorial director and co-founder of Mediapart.

The editorial team is organized in sub-sections – investigation, politics, economy, international, culture and opinion–, but when they are working on big investigations, multiple journalists can be mobilized on the same subject, using different sources and articles.

“At one point, 18 people were working on the Bettencourt scandal,” says Bonnet. “We discuss the investigation together, share our information and confront points of view.”

Mediapart is unique. “To my knowledge, there is no equivalent abroad,” says Charon. Spanish journalists inspired themselves from Mediapart to create InfoLibre, a website with the same philosophy. The two sites have become partners. Will this encourage French newspapers to prioritize investigative news, or will Mediapart remain a lone wolf? “Given the present situation of the press,” says Charon, “the second hypothesis seems more likely.”