A study by author Nicola Bruno and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen published this year by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the Oxford University analysed the situation of the Western Europe emerging pure player journalistic start-ups.
“Survival is Success. Journalistic Online Start-Ups in Werstern Europe”, as the study is called, was also the basis of a panel discussion held in Perugia at the International Journalism Festival with Nicola Bruno, Thierry Chervel, co-founder of the German site Perlantaucher, Yann Guegan, deputy editor of the French Rue89, Turi Munthe, CEO and founder of the UK-based Demotix and Johanna Vehkoo, part of the team behind SuBMoJour.net.
The Reuters Institute study analysed case studies from Germany, France and Italy to try to assess “what are the prospects for sustainable forms of journalistic content creation and curation amongst the current wave of online start-ups” which has hit Europe.
The main conclusion the study reaches is that, at this stage, mere survival is a success for these new journalist ventures as the journalistic start-ups still struggle to break even in Western Europe countries.
France is regarded as the most pioneering place for innovation and experimentation in this field and it has been described as the “nouvelle vague” of the new independent journalism, as Bruno said in Perugia.
The researchers did not look at blogs or philanthropically-supported journalism in their analysis, to focus on business models that were at least theoretically profitable.
Markets tend to be dominated by legacy media organizations – the study says – and although online advertising is growing, it cannot so far provide the basis for the existence of sustainable news start-ups.
In this sense - the study underlined – legacy media and newcomers are bound by the same economic challenges.
Germany, the largest media market in Europe according to the study, combines high levels of Internet access with a high proportion of the population getting their news online with a growing online advertising market. Despite the situation sounding promising for new ventures, legacy media have heavily invested in the online ground making it difficult for new start-ups to compete which needed to find their niche.
In Perugia, Thierry Chervel, co-founder of Perlentaucher, described how the high-quality website which aggregates, curates and comments on cultural issues already covered by other German media, carved out its niche.
Perlentaucher managed to create an income stream very quickly. That was possible because it was 2000, Cherval said, and because the website is very small and very flexible, and never depended on money from outside investors and always kept its costs low. Although it has been financially sustainable for years, it encountered some difficulties due to legal complications as major media publications were not very enthusiasts about the site reusing their content, the study says.
France and Italy, compared to German, have been more prolific in terms of flourishing journalistic new realities.
The French media landscape has seen the rise of new ventures which have challenged the dominance of legacy media, the report states, and have tried to fill the gaps left especially by the newspapers – in France the top online news sites are those of broadcasters, the study explains.
Launched in 2007 by former Liberation journalists, Rue89 made being an alternative to mainstream media its strong point, always stressing the peculiarity of being an independent pure player and distancing itself from a media landscape where interconnections between the press and the political and economical elite are not so rare.
Struggling to survive however, Rue89 was acquired in December 2011 by the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, an acquisition that caused a bit of bitterness, Deputy Editor Yann Guegan admitted, making Rue89 a bit less pure. “We have to live with the fact that we are not pure as we were – Guegan said in Perugia – but we remain independent in our minds and the new owner said the spirit of Rue89 won't change”.
In an interview with Editors Weblog, the site’s co-founder Pierre Haski, talking about the return of Rue89 to its core online origin after an experiment with a printed monthly edition, confirmed that they have not yet found the ingredients for being successful and profitable online. Advertising is not enough to make a company viable to pay salaries for a newsroom of a significant size. One alternative way is to diversify, which is what Rue89 is doing with its training department and web development for other clients, and which it tried to do with the print edition.
“The progressive saturation and increased competition from more websavvy legacy media and a continuous stream of new entrants is putting especially larger start-ups like Rue89 under pressure as the bar for what kind of audience is necessary to cover costs keeps inching upwards”, the report states.
“Irrespective of size, journalistic online start-ups in France as elsewhere need to diversity to survive”, it continues.
On the other hand, in the Italian online media landscape the lion’s share has always been held by major mainstream newspapers as La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera, both from an audience and from an advertising point of view.
Until 2010, as the report stresses, the only significant pure player in Italy was Dagospia, a site which mixes gossip and politics, inspired by the US Drudge Report. However the online wave finally hit Italy with the launch of Il Post in April 2010, followed by Lettera43 and in 2011 by Linkiesta.
Due to its recent development, the Italian landscape for online-only websites is still in its experimental phase and it’s too early to say if they’ll be successful, as the report says.
Despite differences, the common denominator in the pure player scene in Western Europe is that one single solution to survival does not exist.
“The watchword is the same across the news industry today – diversification”, the report says. The ones who managed to succeed – to survive indeed – share these qualities: they have all adapted to the specific context in which they operate, they have kept costs under control, found a niche audience or have diversified their revenue beyond online advertising.
“At this stage, survival in itself must be recognised as a form of success, a precondition for whatever else new journalistic initiatives want to achieve”, the report concludes.