Born out of crisis: New online newspapers are shaking up Spain’s media landscape

Born out of crisis: New online newspapers are shaking up Spain’s media landscape

Background

Spain’s political topography and consequently its media landscape have undergone radical change as a consequence of the economic and political crisis of 2008.

The conservative People’s Party and the Socialists have been forced to share the political space with the left-wing party Podemos and liberal right Ciudadanos during the last few years. Simultaneously, traditional newspapers like El País, El Mundo or ABC have also lost their dominance to new, mostly purely digital media such as eldiario.es or elconfidencial.com. Some of the new players are now in a similar league to the old, in terms of credibility, readership and exclusive stories.

The recession, which highlighted a wave of corruption scandals in politics, was also the starting point for a radical shift in the media landscape. In 2011, this combination led to the massive protests of the citizens’ 15 May movement (15-M). “The new media are for the most part the offspring of the economic and political crisis,” explains Ignacio Escolar, founder and editor in chief of eldiario.es, one of Spain’s most widely read online newspapers. “The political crisis resulted in a loss of confidence in institutions, which affected not only political parties but also the media.

And for the press, the economic crisis exacerbated this loss of confidence, in effect losing its independence. At a time when Spain had to apply for an international rescue package for its financial system, the media fell into the hands of the banks, with whom they had accumulated massive debts,” adds Escolar, who is also the main shareholder in the newspaper he founded in 2012. The established newspapers’ dependence on their financial backers seriously compromised their credibility.

With a rise in unemployment rates to a record 27 per cent, many were no longer able to meet their mortgage payments and lost their property to the banks. There was a surge in forced evictions, in many places attracting the attention of activists trying to prevent them. “The established newspapers reported little of this and for the most part without giving the name of the relevant banks. This opened up an information gap for us and others, which we made use of to tell things others withheld. Without this, our rapid growth would hardly have been possible,” Escolar states.

The 15-M movement and traditional media

Many of those who took to the streets for months as part of the 15-M and who founded numerous local citizens’ groups throughout the country, had lost all trust in traditional media. “During the 15-M, citizens took on the role of watchdog of the powerful, a role that had originally been that of the media. With public criticism of the prevailing system and growing access to social networks, the established press suffered a great loss of confidence that is felt to this day,” says Virginia Pérez Alonso, one of the two editors in chief of online newspaper Público. The media sector was hit even harder by the recession than other industries, leading to massive job cuts.

Many of the journalists who had been laid off subsequently founded their own media outlets. Público ceased publication of its printed daily in 2012 and made 130 employees redundant. A colourful range of new media publications resulted, such as Infolibre, La Marea, the business magazine Alternativas Económicas, the satirical magazine Mongolia and also eldiario.es: Escolar is a former editor in chief of Público and brought several former colleagues on board. According to Madrid Press Association APM, nearly 400 new media outlets were founded between the beginning of the crisis in 2008 and 2014, the vast majority of them purely digital, but some with print editions.

Although only a handful of these journalistic startups have managed to close the gap on the established media and reach economic success, the new media as a whole are an important part of the Spanish present-day media landscape. According to the “Digital News Report 2018,” published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, two thirds of readers visit the pages of one of the Spanish online media at least once a week. Eldiario.es and elconfidencial.com are among the top five in Spain in this ranking and also enjoy considerable credibility.

Spain’s new media landscape also affects the exclusive exposés that in the past had been the preserve of the top dogs. It was thus the country’s two leading newspapers, El País and El Mundo, which in 2013 uncovered the scandal over the secret party funds of the conservative People’s Party (PP). This case as well as other corruption scandals ultimately led to the fall of Mariano Rajoy’s government by way of a vote of no confidence last summer and brought the socialist Pedro Sánchez to power.

Many political revelations come through the new media

While the big, established media continue to profit from their sources and their privileged access to decision makers, the new media have succeeded in stirring up politics with numerous revelations in recent years. Several politicians, including a PP regional government premier and socialist ministers, fell due to the dishonest acquisition of master’s degrees. The now opposition leader Pablo Casado was at least temporarily under pressure for his dubious academic degree. Other ministers were forced to resign over dubious tax avoidance practices.

Most recently, revelations of years of private espionage activities by police inspector José Manuel Villarejo, who is at present in custody awaiting trial, have kept the public as well as the political and economic establishment in a state of suspense. Secret tape recordings and phone tappings cast former monarch Juan Carlos in a bad light and caused a PR emergency at major bank BBVA. Many of the revelations originating from Villarejo’s immense wealth of data come via the new media. However, it must also be noted that in many cases these revelations have a targeted agenda, and are spread in part via online portals created for this purpose.

The so-called “Panama Papers,” an offshore agency’s enormous data leak, bringing to light thousands of cases of tax avoidance, drew much attention and indignation both in Spain and throughout the world. For their partner in the analysis and publication of the data in Spain, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) did not select one of the established newspapers. Instead, they opted for elconfidencial.com along with private TV station La Sexta. Some years before, Wikileaks had still passed the various cables from the Pentagon solely and exclusively to El País. “It is clear that the ICIJ were looking for someone who they could be sure would publish the information, no matter who might be affected by it,” attests Pérez Alonso of Público.

The decline of the established key media

El País illustrates like few other papers the ramifications of the crisis. The newspaper was founded shortly after the death of dictator Francisco Franco and was the preferred read of the country’s liberal left as well as the international figurehead for the Spanish press. Through their own mismanagement and as a consequence of the crisis, the publisher PRISA fell into the hands of international investors and major domestic corporations such as BBVA and Telefónica. These interests frequently became obvious in its reporting. To make matters worse, the publishers then backed an editor in chief, Antonio Caño, who steered the newspaper from its traditional left-wing liberal course to the right.

This alienated a large number of loyal regular readers and led to the departure of a series of well-known and lesser known authors, some of whom signed on with the new media outlets or started their own projects. As a result, the paper’s problems only increased further. Evidently, the owners came to their senses last year and replaced Caño with Soledad Gallego-Díaz, a renowned journalist from El País’ founding years. The first woman at the helm of Spain’s leading newspaper, she restored the paper to its previous left-wing liberal style, brought back some well-known journalists and started to permit critical reports about shareholders such as BBVA again.

The crisis also caused change for El Mundo, the second biggest newspaper and great rival of El País. The paper’s founder Pedro J. Ramírez was shown the door by the publishers in 2014. Ramírez, one of the most dazzling and polemic personalities of the Spanish media landscape, blamed his replacement on the publication of information on PP’s slush funds, which had created great difficulties for the Rajoy government. He suspected political pressures had led to his removal.

The publisher, Unidad Editorial, which is controlled by the Italian RSC, cited the drop in turnover as the reason for the decision instead. Ramírez, like many of his less well-known colleagues, founded his own project, El Español, which he was able to fund in part with his high severance payment and with donations from his many supporters. According to data from the market research company Comscore, the online publication is among the top ten most widely read publications in Spain.

In terms of credibility, the Spanish media do not score well in international comparison. The above-mentioned Reuters study found that 44 per cent of the Spanish audience believe the news versus 30 per cent who do not. In Germany, 50 per cent of those questioned have confidence in the media.

Politicized state television

The press’ lack of credibility is also linked to the role of the state media. National station Radiotelevisión Española (RTVE) has been the puppet of the different governments since the re-introduction of democracy in 1978, with only a few laudable exceptions. Both Felipe González’ socialists and José María Aznar’s and Mariano Rajoy’s conservatives abused the station quite blatantly as a propaganda machine for their own purposes. The socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero introduced a new statute for RTVE in 2006, safeguarding the station’s editorial independence. Yet his successor Rajoy ended this freedom in 2012, using his absolute majority in both chambers of parliament; state television hence became submissive again.

At the moment, RTVE is led by its acting managing director Rosa María Mateo, a recognized journalist, with critical reporting taking place once again. Nevertheless, the state station’s future depends on the early parliamentary elections at the end of April. “Being without a public reference medium is a disaster,” laments Pérez Alonso: “This is an urgent political problem but it is very difficult to solve because the parties do not believe in it.” This concerns even new parties such as Podemos, who are normally committed to transparency. Left-leaning new media can bear witness to many incidents where the Podemos leadership around Pablo Iglesias did not take the freedom of the press too seriously. The party long denied interviews with its leading politicians to La Marea, a small, leftist monthly and online publication, noting that “friendly fire” from ideologically close circles would not be accepted.

Susceptibility to political manipulation is not limited to the national station RTVE. Regional stations also serve the respective governments, e.g. Canal Sur in Andalusia or TV3 in Catalonia, which unequivocally takes the line of the separatists, even though barely half of all Catalans support independence. For Público’s Pérez Alonso, these abuses on the part of the political sector have much to do with the education system. “The schools here bring the children up to become uncritical citizens instead of educating them on their duty to be well informed,” says the journalist and mother-of-two.

Independence with new business models

Naturally, economic success is paramount for the new media to remain independent and to obtain the necessary means for complex investigations. The large majority is financed exclusively by advertising and partly by grants from public sector entities or private trusts. Some online media conceal their ownership structure and do not make disclosures about their income. In some cases business or political interests are behind this.

In contrast, other newspapers rely on transparency regarding the origins of owners and funds. These are mainly media from the left of the spectrum, whose business model is based on making their readers pay. Infolibre, a partner of French Mediapart, totalled nearly 10 000 paying “members” last year, who were given exclusive access to content and made up about half the turnover. La Marea was founded as a cooperative based on the model of Berlin newspaper taz; it has about 5000 paying readers per month.

The most successful by far is online newspaper eldiario.es, reaching almost 35 000 supporters in its seventh year. For 60 Euros a year, they get exclusive access to some of the articles the evening before these become freely available on the web. “Pay so the facts get reported,” is the motto eldiario.es uses to attract members. Others among the new media also appeal to their audience for support, stating that a free press relies on this support to reduce their dependence on advertising. Willingness to pay for news is still low among Spanish readers, but is slowly increasing. In the Reuters Institute survey, 11 per cent of those questioned claimed to have paid for news on the internet during the previous year.

Eldiario.es, elconfidencial.com and others can offer their employees decent salaries today, albeit below what was paid during the good times before the crisis. Elsewhere, more precarious working conditions generally prevail. A series of projects were closed down after a short lifespan, such as the weekly magazine Ahora, founded by former El País journalists. Some media make their living off unpaid, voluntary authors and so-called “citizen journalism” by dedicated but non-professional citizens.

In part, this goes back to the times of the 15-M, when the protest movement started their own media and when activists filmed those forced evictions and made them available online; the established press only daring to report on these tentatively. “Many media are operated by activists. It is however important to distinguish these from professional journalism,” believes Magda Bandera, La Marea’s editor in chief.

Alternative media and social polarization

One of the problems of a business model including paying readers is retention, in a society becoming ever more polarized, as it is in other countries. The issue of the independence movement in Catalonia in particular is dividing the country and making life difficult for journalists. All newspapers trying to present both sides of the conflict have lost readers, who lamented either the perceived proximity to the separatists or the overly rigid positions towards the “independentistas.”

The polarization regarding Catalonia, which has been dominating political debate in Spain for years and which will also be the main topic during the forthcoming election campaign, has manifested itself in astounding ways. For the first time since the early years of democracy, an obviously right-wing radical partly has emerged: Vox. The organization, which was founded only five years ago by politicians who had defected from the PP, achieved a surprising 11 per cent of the vote in regional elections in Andalusia. Opinion polls regard it highly likely that in the 28 April elections, Vox will enter parliament. The right profit above all from growing Spanish nationalism, which is a reaction to the independence movement in Catalonia. Vox has few advocates in the media but polarization and cheap propaganda against the separatists in parts of the press have boosted the party’s positions.

The right are in the lead in the use of social media

On the other hand, Vox is also a good example of how, thanks to social networks, success is now possible for a political organization without ideological backing from the press. The right-wing radicals’ homepage had more than twice the number of visitors than the remaining parties of late, likely also due to the novelty factor. The right are also in the lead on Instagram, where they use home-made short videos to stir up the mood against separatists and migrants. Facebook and Youtube are the other two channels for Vox to spread their message, apparently with success.

The Catalonia conflict has made Spain aware of the problem of politically motivated false reports. An abundance of “fake news” surrounding the referendum prohibited by the Constitutional Court of Spain and the subsequent declaration of independence in October 2017 attempted to incite resentment in both camps. There is at least some awareness in Spanish society of the dangers to democracy from this phenomenon. According to the Reuters Institute’s survey results, 69 per cent of the Spanish population worry about the problem of false information, compared to 37 per cent in Germany.

“Fake news” have in turn led to new online portals such as maldita.es, solely focused on refuting such false reports on social media as well as obvious lies by politicians. Maldita.es thus disproved a tweet claiming Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s ousted head of government, who had fled to Belgium from justice, had insulted the voters of the right and right-wing liberal parties by calling them dense.

The outlook: of stars and planets

Spain’s new media cosmos comprises many small stars and a few larger planets that can keep pace with established newspapers and television stations. Escolar started eldiario.es in 2012 with a dozen journalists in a small office on Madrid’s Gran Vía. Today, approximately 100 people are employed at headquarters, with 50 more at local newsrooms around the country. “In the beginning, we were a medium for second perusal but today we are for first reading. Around half of our visitors go direct to the homepage to see how we report the day’s events,” Escolar says.

He would never have reckoned with reaching 35 000 paying readers for his newspaper one day. “Now, on the other hand, I believe we will grow further, as our model has gone against the trend when all other media offered their content for free,” says the editor in chief of eldiario.es. Escolar is convinced that soon all newspapers offering high-quality content will make payment compulsory and put it behind a paywall. This would be the end of free choice between the various media. Escolar sees this trend as more of a chance than a danger: “People will then have to decide which paper they would like to pay for and we are well placed for that.”

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