France’s top science magazine in turmoil over editorial independence
Science & Vie, France’s largest popular science magazine, has put out its monthly issues for more than 100 years, covering science, health, and technology for the broad public. Now, the magazine’s top editor has resigned after articles, written by a corporate employee, were published on the magazine’s website without the knowledge of its editors. Magazine staff have gone on strike over the interference by France’s largest marketing and media group, and they fear they are losing editorial independence.
Although the corporate articles were eventually edited or retracted, Hervé Poirier announced his departure last week after 21 years with the magazine, which sells 250,000 copies a month. The resignation underscores the tensions with Reworld Media Group, and fears it is “seeking to take editorial control of the website,” says Mathilde Fontez, a journalist and co-president of the magazine’s journalist association that was founded shortly after Science & Vie fell under Reworld’s control.
Based in a Paris suburb, Reworld in 2019 acquired Science & Vie and about 25 other magazines in a €70 million buyout of Mondadori France, a subsidiary of the Italian publisher Mondadori. Created in 2012 by internet entrepreneurs, Reworld has been criticized for replacing journalistic content with online brand content—written to satisfy advertisers—produced by corporate writers. French journalism labor unions say that in prior acquisitions, Reworld has gutted newsrooms and outsourced content creation to agencies. One-third of Science & Vie’s journalists opted for a package deal to leave soon after the buyout. A promise to hire more journalists later was never fulfilled, Fontez says.
Instead, the media group hired its own writer—a fact the editors discovered only after the position had been filled. “This person was clearly given instructions to publish content on our website without having that content reread or validated by our editors,” Fontez says. Since then, Science & Vie’s team has discovered a dozen articles published surreptitiously on their website. The editors had to retract or modify the texts postpublication to keep them consistent with the magazine’s editorial standards. “There’s just been absolutely no communication with this team, and they’re not following the usual chain of hierarchy that ensures quality journalism,” she says, adding that the magazine staff and the corporate teams are physically isolated, with offices on different sides of Paris.
Two weeks ago, the editors found and retracted a corporate-authored article on global warming. It wasn’t inaccurate but rather “fraught with a certain naïveté, which is one of the worst flaws,” Poirier says. Poirier sought guarantees from Reworld that Science & Vie could operate without interference, but to no avail. “My departure could facilitate the instigation of fruitful discussions,” he says.
Staff journalists, interns, and even freelancers immediately declared a strike following Poirier’s announcement, Fontez says. However, they suspended the strike after 3 days when Reworld proposed meetings with the science journalists. The journalists were also worried that the November issue, scheduled to go to print this week, would lack quality if Reworld handled it without them.
For Yves Sciama, president of the French Association of Science Journalists and regular contributor to the magazine, the media giant capitalized on the staff’s dedication. “They told them if they were on strike, the magazine would get printed anyway, but certainly with reduced quality and most likely with missing pages, and that’s just too bad,” he says. He says the message was: Reworld doesn’t care about its readers, its product, or, least of all, the quality of scientific content. Gautier Normand, CEO and co-founder of Reworld, declined to comment on the situation.
Poirier is less pessimistic. “The team members all strive to uphold a tradition of high-quality popularization of science which has endured over 107 years,” he says. “The press has gone through multiple crises, of readership, distribution, and coronavirus, threatening its economic balance.”
Magazine staff meetings with corporate managers have been postponed until Friday because of an outbreak of COVID-19 among the staff. The team wants Reworld to hire three new journalists to help ensure quality reporting. “We want to know what Reworld’s project is, exactly,” she says. “Do they want to make a low-end, nonjournalistic website with unverified content, or do they want to have a site that’s in line with the print magazine, with the same level of quality? For the moment, we really have no idea.”
Should discussions prove unsatisfactory, the strike would resume, followed, most likely, by “mass departures” of the staff, she says.
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