Why French Media Is So Afraid of Innovation

Afraid of innovation?

Afraid of innovation?

I don’t think it’s unfair to say, with all the affection I have for France and the French way of doing things, that there is often a 10-year lag between the US and France. This can sound like a long time, and it is. But the Atlantic Ocean is vast, I suppose. I mentioned this a few weeks ago, for example, in the context of hipsters, a species spotted for the first time in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, around 1999 or so and still popping up in Belleville in Paris today. Other things with some delay: customer service, e-commerce, day spas…oh and the internet and media.

But when it comes to media, the past month here in Paris has been uncharacteristically disruptive in the most positive and innovation-driven sense of the term, with not one, but four new digital media start-ups being announced. None, strangely (but for reasons about which I will speculate below) seems to have created much buzz…even though one of the launches was Buzzfeed France.

Capture d’écran 2013-11-22 à 19.54.37

Recognize this? Cat LOL’s evidently don’t get lost in translation.

Perhaps it’s not a fair comparison between U.S. and French media, just by virtue of the sheer size of the (totally unregulated) American market: hundreds of cable television channels, thousands of newspapers, dozens of internet-only news websites with traffic that surpasses the websites of traditional media, plus bloggers, aggregators, curated crowd-sourced content, hugely popular amateur content, mobile-only content. It is an extraordinarily vibrant, highly-innovative, frenetically disruptive media market. There are new ideas (and new jobs) being created all the time in the media industry in the U.S. They can also risk going away just as fast as they came, too.

France…is different. There is some of the same stuff, but much less of it; and then some of the new stuff just hasn’t made it here yet. Arguably, when it comes to the development of new internet-only media (really not much), to the transformation of traditional media and their adaptation to digital platforms and mobile (slow), to the creation of new mobile-only media (none yet really), you could say that France is not very efficient.

This is not actually the attitude in France.

This is not actually the attitude in France.

I often wonder what they’re waiting for, and I speculate that it has something to do with the inefficiencies of a media market dominated by public media behemoths like France Télévisions and Radio France, for whom implementing change is a hugely complex, slow-moving, procedural enterprise. France is actually (improbably) ranked among the most innovative countries in the world when it comes to industry and research (only Japan and the U.S. are ahead of it). Why not when it comes to media?

I also speculate that it has something to do with a layer of upper management in newsrooms and networks that is, for the most part, a club of male baby-boomers. This is a delicate speculation to make and so I proceed with caution, as 50- and 60-something male management is not necessarily a barrier to change, it’s just that youth and diversity tend to encourage innovation and that the only diversity you’ll find at the head of French newsrooms is the occasional woman.

A new tablet-only weekend edition of the news media Rue 89.

A new tablet-only weekend edition of the news media Rue 89.

But innovation is coming, slowly, as these past few weeks demonstrate. After Buzzfeed France, the French version of the famous American listicle site earlier this month, yesterday came the announcement of Rue 89 Weekend, a tablet-only weekend edition of one of France’s most successful internet-only news sites, rue89.com. Last week, the news site L’important was launched, introducing a whole new genre of media to the French landscape: a website produced in partnership with Mediapart.fr (France’s other most popular internet-only news site) that curates and aggregates the most relevant news tweets sourced, the founder says, from a network of volunteer twitterers all over the world.

And lastly, Canal Plus, the biggest paying channel in France (essentially the French HBO in terms of its importance in the French media landscape), announced the creation of 20 new YouTube channels in partnership with the video-sharing platform where they’ll feature all of their catch-up TV programming, and—this is the more interesting announcement—the creation of Canal Factory, a new brand dedicated to finding and producing talent and content exclusively for the web.

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It’s all a nice little spike of innovation catch-up. But none of these launches are actual start-ups, really: they’re all new projects related to pre-existing media (Rue 89, Mediapart, Canal Plus), or just the local iteration of…an American media (Buzzfeed). I’m not diminishing the merit of these projects, all of which I actually find really interesting and pretty ambitious (especially for France!), but nor is the French media really paying much attention either. If you Google the news about Canal Factory, there are practically more top-ranked entries in English than in French.

Maybe it’s a good thing that these new media launches don’t create the same kind of media scrutiny that most launches get in US media, with a whole industry parsing the project—its funding, its content, its founders, its revenue streams—before the first consumer has even clicked. Or maybe the traditional French media is just playing ostrich.

In any case, I will also speculate that the media industry can’t afford to take ten years to catch up this time. They might want to take their heads out of the sand.

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