The French news site Rue89 is a perfect case study for my project-in-progress. When it was launched in 2007 as an original-reporting web alternative to old media stalwarts like Le Monde and Le Figaro, it broke through virtually on Day One with a huge scoop related to Nicolas Sarkozy’s then wife Cecilia’s decision to not go to the polls in his bid for the presidency. The site has continued to break stories and beat the competition. But Rue89 is also instructive because despite its virtual instant credibility and forward-thinking approach to the news business – and traffic that multiplies by the day — it is still struggling to generate profits.
But perhaps I personally have the most to learn from them because it was founded by veterans of the traditional media, a core group of former editors and foreign correspondents of the French left-wing daily Libération, founded in 1973 by none other than Jean-Paul Sartre. (For those counting, that’s three or four degrees of professional separation from one damn smart French dude…)
I met Rue89 editor-in-chief Pierre Haski for lunch Tuesday in a cozy bistro in the 20th arrondissment, around the corner from their cramped and buzzing one-large-room HQ. Haski appeared generally more optimistic than when we’d met for the first time in July. The good news: they’ve doubled advertising sales in the past year. The bad news is that the overall ad revenue generated remains flat, as rates have continued to plummet. Still they are heading for a rather speedy (by news biz standards) break-even (and beyond!?) point in the next year or two, as their audience continues to grow even as their costs remain stable–but also because of a surprising windfall from new media training courses they run for journalists and others. They are also looking to begin selling affordable fine art and design items on their site, with the stamp of Rue89. Lesson: Always keep eye out for any related stream of revenue, short of selling hot dogs, especially if it helps build reader and professional connections.
This former Johannesburg/Jerusalem/Beijing bureau chief has also just completed another successful round of capital investment, and joked that he now finds himself regularly using biz and financial parlance that he’d never even heard of. The biggest challenge in moving from fulltime journalist to journalist/entrepreneur isn’t even necessarily the workload, but the requirement to divide your time and brain matter in very different arenas. “I’m a workaholic, so the time isn’t a problem. It’s having to constantly be thinking about things that have little to do with the actual journalism.” Still, he seems to be having fun, in part because the site is a full-bore collaboration between 20-somethings and 40 and 50-somethings, like him. (Reminds me of former Time and People capo Jim Gaines, now heading up flypmedia.com.)
What interests me particularly about Rue89 is this migration/melding/ecosystem evolution between old and new media. How do you make something feel new and reliable at the same time? How do make something that exists in the ether feel like a place that people want to visit? What is the interplay between social media and mass media in building an audience (Haski’s and Rue89 getting quoted in MSM is no less important than twitter links). All of this translated into ugly but essential corporatese: How do you create a brand?
We both agree that the name of the thing definitely matters, though of course it is worthless without all the rest. Theirs is great because it is nothing like an MSM newspaper name, but sounds like some place that you oughta know. Haski liked the working name for my site-to-come (More on that to come! Anticipation among my 3.5 million unique visitors is mounting!! Mom, I already told you the name). He also gave me all kinds of good advice on building an audience, and passed along other contacts who might help bring the project forward.
Unfortunately, there was no time to ask Haski about his former colleagues back at Liberation, nor the legacy of that old media brand’s famous founder. As for me, I hadn’t read any Sartre since university — or were they the Cliffnotes? A quick check now on Wikipedia tells me that Sartre’s thought was based around the idea of the predominance of the “thing-in-itself.” Any reflection upon the Thing is a form of anxiety, i.e. the human condition, and necessarily a limit to its fulfillment. Sartre, I guess, is telling me it’s time to get back to work.