Online news site leads charge in French scandal

PARIS, (Reuters) – An upstart online news service has  led the way in investigating France’s latest political funding  scandal, defying President Nicolas Sarkozy’s efforts to stamp  his influence on the media. 

The Mediapart website has published a stream of embarrassing  reports of alleged cash donations by France’s richest woman,  Liliane Bettencourt, to conservative politicians, and meddling  in judicial affairs, drawing presidential wrath.  

Mediapart’s reports have set the agenda on the scandal,  forcing the rest of the media to follow, and turning the affair  into a major headache for the government.  

Mediapart is one of a new breed of muckraking, mostly  left-leaning online news outlets that is shaking up the French  press, which is reeling after years of sinking circulation and  deteriorating ad sales. 

Sarkozy’s close friendships with traditional media owners  and control of state-funded TV and radio outlets have often  allowed him to shape news coverage and isolate journalists or  editors who displeased him.  
Websites like Mediapart, Rue89, and are less  prone to such influence and are attracting readers by putting  out scoops with a harder-hitting tone.  

Unlike many newspapers, they are not dependent on government  subsidies or industrial owners with deep pockets to survive. Yet  most remain unprofitable so far, showing how hard it is to find  a viable online media business model.  

Founded in 2008 by four former investigative journalists on  Le Monde, Mediapart says it has 30,000 subscribers who pay 9  euros a month to read its reports on social, political and  environmental issues. Its president, Edwy Plenel, who made his name by exposing  scandals under Socialist president Francois Mitterrand and rose  to be editorial director of Le Monde, tells the staff of 25  reporters to focus on scoops instead of routine coverage.“From the beginning, he told us to take the time to  investigate, come up with original material, and step out of the  logic of the daily news cycle where everyone writes the same  thing,” said Pierre Puchot, a journalist at Mediapart, who  covers the Middle East and Africa.  

The government’s response has been to blame the Bettencourt  scandal on shoddy or partisan Internet journalism.

Sarkozy supporters have fiercely attacked Mediapart as a  “cyber-cabal” that undermines democracy, doesn’t check its facts  and only aggregates “tweets and blogs”.  

“This famous website!” exclaimed Industry Minister Christian  Estrosi in a radio interview. “It reminds me of a certain press  of the 1930s,” a reference to extreme-right newspapers which  denounced France’s political class as rotten to the

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