What is going on in the Spanish press?

What is going on in the Spanish press?

The Editors of the three most influential newspapers have been fired in barely two months.

By José A. Martínez Soler

Nieman Fellow´77 (Harvard University)

Like dominos, the Editors of the three most influential newspapers of Spain (El País, El Mundo, and La Vanguardia) have fallen, one after another, in barely two months. Who pushed the dominos?  That is the question that several American colleagues have asked me, as well as Bill Kovach, former curator of the Nieman Foundation.

The coincidence in the timing of the firing of these three journalists (Javier Moreno, Pedro J. Ramírez, and Joan Antich), who had all been the directing Spain’s leading newspapers (two from Madrid and one from Barcelona), the importance of these papers and their ideological variety (one of center left, and two of center right respectively) have unleashed rumors of assorted conspiracy theories: pressure by the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy, the banks, the King, the Catholic Church, politicians against growing Catalonian nationalism… or all of the above.

As we know, pressure by political, economic, and social powers to influence the news and editorial content of the press is as old as democracy. Unlike other Western countries with centuries of democratic tradition, our democracy is young -our Constitution dates back to December of 1978- and more inexperienced in balancing these multiple pressures of the powers that be.  Our newspapers, many of them as young as our democracy, or even younger, are also more vulnerable to dramatic economic downturns. There will always be pressures in all democracies that have freedom of speech, and in our democracy, sometimes the assorted powers achieve their goal, and sometimes not.  And sometimes, partially.

In my opinion, these pressures are the “cold sores” of the press in democratic societies.  If the press enjoys good health, is profitable and has a solid readership, the effect of political and economic pressure is generally insignificant. The profitable press generates efficient antibodies to defend itself from attacks and does not yield under pressure. The cold sore is undetectable, but it is always there, hiding out or camouflaged.

However, if the press (or a particular newspaper) is in bad financial health, is not earning profits, hemorrhaging losses, burdened with enormous debt, and on the verge of bankruptcy, then its defensive antibodies no longer work, the immunological system fails and the cold sore blisters erupt in full sight for all to see – by both readers, advertisers, and enemies.

Newspapers with big losses must “pay” their sources and advertisers more.  The “payment” is non monetary in the form of favoring a particular slant, the amount of space occupied, the treatment given, and protection -the deliberate shelving of a particular newsworthy information “fit to print,” what we in Spain call the “no news story” that involves the protection of a source, a big advertiser, or a power that be of unfavorable or damaging information. Newspapers in deep economic trouble are more servile with their big advertisers than those who enjoy good financial health.

Additionally, in Spain, many newspapers, especially regional papers, depend heavily on central and regional institutional government advertising and on advertising from state owned or controlled companies

The Minister of the Treasury, Cristóbal Montoro, was very explicit upon suggesting that the criticism he was getting in the press was directly related to the income tax difficulties of some media. “Is this a form of pressure?” the Minister asked in Congress (December 11, 2013).  “I know it because they tell me so… they come to my office to tell me their financial problems.  Instead of giving so many lessons of ethics in their editorials, what they have to do (the media) is to religiously pay their taxes on time…”  As we can see, the pressures between the Government and newspapers are scandalously mutual, or as we say in Spain, “a return trip:” they go both ways.

There is not a single cause, but several, to explain the almost simultaneous change of three newspaper editors in two months. Conspiracy theories do have an advantage: they seem plausible and are easy to believe. But they also have a serious inconvenience: usually they are false. That said, I do not believe that these three firings one after another are merely random.

Each of the three newspapers has their own particular circumstances.  For example, the change in La Vanguardia, the leading paper in Catalonia, has a certain relationship with the pro-independence stance of the fired editor.  (A ruling coalition of nationalist parties in Catalonia, the northeast region of Spain with its own language, are vociferously insisting on a referendum in November for eventual independence from Spain.)  Since the entrance of the new editor, Marius Carol, the pro-independence positions of La Vanguardia seem to be more tempered or moderate.

In addition to the various specific causes there are also others in common.  For the last seven years in the three dailies (and in almost all the press), the traumatic effect of the brutal fall of income in advertising and plummeting sales of printed copies due to the economic crisis, has brought newspapers here to their knees.  Circulation for all three newspapers above has fallen by more than a third since a decade ago. (El País fell to 271,673 daily copies,El Mundo, to 150,085 copies, and La Vanguardia, to 128,022 copies, according to data from OJD -Spain’s media circulation control office- in December of 2013

Advertising in the press plunged two thirds over the last 6 years and average circulation of Spanish dailies, like the three fore-mentioned newspapers, fell by more than a third.  To reduce expenses, hundreds of journalists had been fired or laid off before these Editors lost their jobs.  El País, for example, laid off 129 journalists, a third of its staff.  And the digital versions of El País, El Mundo, and La Vanguardia continue to be unprofitable, despite having 14, 11, and 4 million monthly readers respectively, according to ComScore.

Spanish newspapers, saddled with huge losses and debts, are in deep trouble not just because of the current acute economic and political crisis (26% unemployment, 1600 cases of political corruption currently in the courts- one of the highest in Europe- and a very high level of social discontent in 2014) but also because its traditional model of business has no future in a country that reads very little.  Be it due to the legacy of the former dictatorship, Catholic tradition, or good climate -all enemies of reading- 92 newspapers are sold per 1000 people in Spain compared to an average of 175 copies/1000 people sold in the European Union and 193 copies/1000 people in the United States.  Only Italy (89 copies) and Portugal (52 copies) sell fewer newspapers than Spain. Of course, there are global causes (Internet, social networks, infotainment, availability of 24 hour TV news and hundreds of TV channels) and local causes (social and demographic changes, fragmentation of readership into specialized media…)

During the Spanish Republic of 1931-1936, combined Spanish newspapers had the same combined circulation as today of pay newspapers, about 4 million copies, but with half the population of today.  And of that 1930’s population, half of it was illiterate.  This is yet another legacy of the Franco dictatorship: the lack of a free press for almost 40 years discouraged a habit of reading newspapers and may have bred a deep distrust of getting reliable news from any newspaper for generations thereafter.

It goes without saying that if the traditional newspapers fail to change their business and news model, they will become irrelevant or they will perish.  The facts show that the content of pay newspapers are of little or no interest to potential readers at the current price.  Either they must make their papers more appealing or lower the price.  Perhaps for this reason, four free daily newspapers flourished in Spain distributing over 4 million daily copies in total, the same as the number of copies as all of Spain’s pay newspapers combined (more than a hundred).  The daily paper 20 minutos of the Norwegian Schibsted Media Group, is the lone free newspaper survivor of the current crisis.  It was launched in 2000 and reached a total of 2.9 million daily readers in 2007, distributing 1.17 million copies a day. (Full disclosure:  I was the founder, CEO for over 10 years, and board member of 20 minutos until my retirement last February. And we also had to reduce our newspaper staff by a third, among other cost cutting measures, to weather out the crisis.)

Older readers of pay papers are dying off and young people do not buy nor read these antiquated 20th century printed papers. If they do not change their model (too many neckties per page, women and young people do not see themselves in photos or news stories that are mostly about and/or for middle-aged and aging men), the index of reposition of old readers by an influx of young adult readers and more women is not going to happen. The newspaper owners are desperate.   They want to sell their shares, merge with others and/or change the content but they are blindly beating around. Blaming the Editor is very handy.  Hence, newspaper editors have become the sacrificial lambs in this crisis.  And such a remedy tends to have contagious effects.

Of the three biggest newspapers, the most relevant case is that of El País, the leading daily of the Spanish press since the end of the Dictatorship of “generalissimo” Franco[i].  Added to its failing economic health (with $873.2 million in losses and an accumulated debt in December, 2013, of $4.4 billion) there is the added anguishing problem of its ruinous pay TV that El País is trying to sell to, among others, Telefónica the largest company in Spain and one of the five most important in the world in the telephone business.

Jesús Polanco, the businessman who controlled 64% of Grupo PRISA, the publisher of El País since its founding in 1976, died in 2007.  The executive power was inherited by the journalist Juan Luis Cebrián, the first Editor of El País which is no longer controlled by the Polanco family, but by foreign investment and Spanish banks.  In December of 2013, PRISA received $1.2 billion from Liberty Adquisitions Holding, a New York based investment company.  The controlling share group today owns less than 30% of equity. Although Banco de Santander and La Caixa Bank do not like to be identified with a newspaper, they now have the possibility of collecting on their loans in the form of shares in El País..

Certainly, El País is going through a period of ill health, and for that reason is more vulnerable to external pressures.  But I do not believe the conservative Government of Rajoy has neither the strength nor sufficient wits, to provoke a change of Editor of El País by itself. However, if Antonio Caño, the new director, imprints his personal viewpoint (with the permission of the president, Juan Luis Cebrián), El País will move a little more towards the political center, getting a bit closer to the Popular Party government and distancing itself a little more from the opposition socialist party, at least while its economic independence fails to improve.

This could give rise to the dominant conspiracy theories that attribute this change to a direct intervention of “the invisible hand” of Government.  For some, the change of political slant will be the Litmus test.  To begin with, the appointment of Antonio Caño was rejected in a vote by the majority of the journalist staff.  The old crew does not recognize the new captain of the ship.

The exaggerated polarization of the three dailies in ideological trench lines, both in news stories as well as editorial content, has always been more typical of another century, and I mean the 19th century, not the 20th.   In addition, the poor quality of their news –without even remotely identifying sources- marks their own decline. One model is agonizing but another is being born.  The deterioration of the traditional press leaves an excellent space for new journalistic projects, both printed and digital, that, though embryonic are being born: eldiario.es, elconfidencial.com, el Huffinton Post Spain, Jot Down, Alternativas Económicas, El Heraldo, infoLibre, La Marea, Revista Mongolia, and more.

The pathetically low level of readership and quality of the Spanish press can be partly explained by professional bad habits, hangovers from the Dictatorship, such as excessive self censorship, obsessive official secrecy, the lack of transparency in both the political parties and in the Administration, undue respect for taboos or self-imposed off-limit subjects such as the King (but not his family), the Army, the Catholic Church, and certain economic powers.

Neither the former Editor of El País nor the former Editor of La Vanguardia has said a word about the causes of their replacement.  On the other hand, the campaign unfurled by Pedro J. Ramirez, ex-Editor of El Mundo, has given wings to the conspiracy explanation that circulates in social networks.  The owner of El Mundo, the leading Italian media group RCS (Rizzoli-Corriere della Sera), has attributed the change of Editor to economic reasons.

However, in an article published in The New York Times (“In Spain, Fired for Speaking Out,” Feb. 5, 2014,) the fired and controversial editor of El Mundo, Pedro J. Ramírez, blames his fall to pressure of the Rajoy Government on the Italian owners of El Mundo to silence his criticisms.

“My confrontation with the government –writes Ramírez-  began last year, when an ally of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, his political party’s former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, now jailed on charges of corruption and tax fraud furnished documents showing illegal financing of the party over nearly two decades. We published an exposé, and turned over the documents to a judge investigating the case. We also published text messages of support that Mr. Rajoy had sent to Mr. Bárcenas.”

His accusations of government intervention are difficult to demonstrate, though easy to believe by those who do not know the profound financial ruin that the Spanish newspaper of Rizzoli-Corriere del Sera suffers.  Pedro J. Ramírez attributes his firing to the Prime Minister of the conservative Government that he himself previously and whole-heartedly supported:

“Previous prime ministers, including José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Mr. Rajoy’s Socialist predecessor, accepted press criticism. But everything changed when Mr. Rajoy, the leader of the conservative People’s Party, came to power. Though we had endorsed him on three occasions, once in power he exhibited hostility toward uncomfortable truths and indifference to public opinion.”  The ex-Editor of El Mundo concluded in his op-ed article:  “…it seems clear to me that democracy might be more fragile now than at any point since Franco died in 1975.”

The fired Editor has a poor memory.  He forgets about small details that made Spaniards tremble in fear and figuratively hide under their beds, when, for example, the attempted military coup of February 23, 1981, held all of Congress sequestered at machine gunpoint and which was aborted 24 tense, nerve racking hours later. Or the hundreds of assassinations carried out by the terrorist Basque separatist organization ETA that in turn provoked constant saber rattling of the military against the then really fragile Spanish democracy.

In my opinion, the conclusion of the recently fired Editor, who, by the way, continues as a prominent columnist in El Mundo and has another high ranking position within RCS, is premature and exaggerated. Perhaps, his passion for being “kicked upstairs” makes him forget the really serious challenges to our young democracy that have been resolved successfully over the past 35 years.

During the 40 years of our cruel Dictatorship, freedom of the press was the first victim: brutal censorship reached unimaginable, if not ridiculous levels.  Not even Donald Duck was spared:  dressed as a U.S. Calvary army fighter, Donald’s raised closed fist on a movie billboard advertising the Adventures of Donald Duck was covered by a mysterious black ball.  In Franco’s Spain, the official salute was the Nazi salute, a left over inheritance from Franco’s former allies Hitler and Mussolini. Donald Duck’s feisty raised fist was just too easily mistaken for the defeated leftist salute of our civil war of 1936-1939.

Since the death of Franco we have been conquering freedom of the press word by word, overcoming temptations of official interventionism inherited from the Dictatorship, to arrive at the current situation, which is, however you want to look at it, incomparably better than that of the past.  

In democracy, censorship is more subtle and negotiable.  It can be present in the form of official subsidies, governmental or private sector advertising; outright bribes, the buying and selling of exclusive revelations, always partial or biased, checkbook journalism, false or deceptive sources not thoroughly vetted, massive “protection” subscriptions numbering into the thousands of large companies, banks, airlines -subscriptions that can always be cancelled.

Certainly, freedom produces monsters capable of devouring three Editors of newspapers in just two months, but we must not forget that the lack of freedom produces infinitely more monsters that are much more ferocious.  Unfortunately, this I know from my own experience.

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jamsoler@gmail.com

www.martinezsoler.com

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[i] Although Franco died in 1975, the dictatorship remained in place until the first free elections in June, 1977.  The approval by referendum of the Spanish Constitution at the end of 1978, marked the official beginning of Spanish democracy.

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