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A popular Spicee program

Two Black Men a Week.  Syria: The Legions of Holy War. Migrants: The Pacific Solution. The first piece deals with the killing of black people by the US police, the second tells a week among jihadist groups in Syria, the third tackles the burning issue of migrant camps in Australia through drawings and video. All three are digital documentaries produced by the young, French media company, Spicee.

In June 2015, two French broadcast journalists, Jean-Bernard Schmitt and Antoine Robin launched this new documentary online-only outlet. Being digital constitutes its challenge and its characteristic.

“TV: a dead piece of furniture”
According to a survey made by a TV station in France, French TV viewers are 50.7 years old in average. “TV is a dead piece of furniture for young people,” Schmitt said.

Other types of screens had become more important to the younger audience: computers, iPads, mobile phones, both inside and outside the house. According to this Nielsen survey from 2015, people between  15 and 30 are heavy smart phone users when it comes to watching video programming, regardless of location. In France, millennials (those aged 15 to 35) spend a full day every week on their smartphones, and 59 percent of those 24 hours is devoted to watch online videos, a TNS Sofres study said in 2015.

“But these young people could at best, watch rubbish videos, at worse, dangerous ones because Internet did not offer quality,” Schmitt said. “We needed to invest the digital sphere to produce quality videos based on journalistic rigor.”

40 percent of Spicee’s audience is under 40 years old
And so they did. The cheaper infrastructure needed to start a system on the digital platform allowed them to launch their media effort for only 1 million Euros, according to Schmitt. Far from the TV spotlights, the two broadcast journalists gave birth to Spicee in a Parisian cave.

Spicee offers some free content online to attract new subscribers, but their business model relies on charging for content and subscriptions. So, the main challenge was to make users pay for video. “Surprisingly, in French people’s minds, while writing can be charged, online videos should be free,” Schmitt noticed.

However, Spicee seems to have found its audience. In the words of Schmitt, Spicee now has 30,000 registered users (people who watched free content or who paid to watch a documentary individually), and 5,000 subscribers. Spicee appears to have reached the youth as “40 percent of the audience is less than 40 years old”, Schmitt said. “Most of all, our audience watches 45 minutes out of a 52-minute-documentary in average.”

Digital changes documentary consumption and creation
Being a content provider producing online documentaries impacts the production and distribution of documentaries. For instance, Spicee’s approach is based on users’ free time. If you have five minutes, there are five-minute documentaries for you. If you have an hour, there aee hour-long documentaries, too.

Spicee does not hesitate to showcase its journalists, a practice which is used to be seen as being in bad taste in France. Traditionally, French journalists prefer to remain discreet.

But on Spicee, journalists appear on screen, from talks about fashion in different countries of the world to behind the scenes of investigative reporting. “Our audience does not watch TV but screens. Computer screens, mobile screens… are closer to viewers. Our audience likes incarnation,” Schmitt said.

Digital allows content experiment
In Conspi Hunter, one of Spicee’s documentaries which has become very famous in France and abroad, journalists are seen reflecting on their piece and working with experts to define their projects—all to be the more transparent.

Indeed, their work is unusual. Conspi Hunter wants to unveil online conspiracy theories. The documentary’s characteristic lies in its construction. They wanted to trap conspiracy theorists by making up fake videos to see if anyone will bite. For instance, Spicee made up an online conspiracy video to suggest Americans brought AIDS to Cuba, Cuba found a cure, so the US now wants the cure and has ended its embargo on the island nation.  Spicee created a Facebook account and when their virtual character published the fake video on AIDS in Cuba, conspiracy websites around the world shared it. None of them checked the information. Spicee succeeded in demonstrating conspiracy theorists fail to fact check.

Thomas Huchon was the one who brought the idea of investigating online conspiracy theories. Yet, this approach was not his. “I had to be convinced it was the right way to do it”, Huchon conceded. “I was afraid to create something we could not control at the end.”

The team took time to set up limits around what they call their “experience.” “The video would be published on YouTube 3 weeks maximum. We took precautions to keep control on it if it was published elsewhere. For instance, I integrated YouTube music in it. If somebody downloaded it and published it on a page we don’t own, I could erase it easily by notifying YouTube who would erase it.” This actually happened. Thirteen minutes after having been notified, YouTube erased the video.

What is the role of online journalists?
To founder Schmitt, digital documentaries allows “proximity and bond with the audience.” “They create the base of a community, which interacts with our content.” Concretely, for Conspi Hunter, it means speaking in 28 schools to classes of 40 students, training professors to help students to deconstruct plotting theories.

Activism? Both Huchon and Schmitt say this is not. But they admitted going around the barriers of traditional journalism. “It’s a citizen journalism. We do the work with the journalistic rigor but we admit we are a battle to fight,” Schmitt said.

To Huchon, this battle is technical. “The more time you inform yourself on Internet, the more time you will spend online, the more you will be sensitive to plotting theories.”

Conspi Hunter is not done. Like most Spicee videos, it has become international by its distribution (the report was aired on Radio Canada, on RTBF in Belgium, on TSR in Switzerland) and by its content. Last episodes dealt with: Alex Jones, supporter of Donald Trump; 9/11 plotting theories and converted conspiracy theorists.

About Clara Wright