“The great problem of the Spanish press is the truth,” a Peruvian colleague once told Alfonso Armada, a former El País reporter who currently works for the conservative newspaper ABC. Armada can’t help but agree. “The press routinely twists the facts to fit the venue’s ideology,” he says. “The media themselves have helped spread the notion that there are no indisputable facts, just partial views of reality. As a result, what has taken root is the idea that, just like politicians, all media outlets lie.” An increasing number of Spaniards these days are thirsty for political news—but they don’t trust their journalists to deliver honest reporting. Journalism is the second-least-respected profession, right behind being a judge. And according to the latest Reuters Digital News Report, the Spanish media have the lowest credibility in Europe.
In fact, Spaniards distrust their journalists almost as much as their politicians. Mounting electoral discontent, however, has been shifting the country’s political map. New parties like Podemos (“We Can”), Ciudadanos (“Citizens”), and broad progressive citizens’ platforms are challenging the longstanding two-party dominance by the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE). In regional elections this May, the two big parties lost more than 3 million votes. And in the local elections, also held in May, Barcelona and Madrid elected leftist women mayors who couldn’t be further from the political class. The political crisis—as well as the growing public mistrust of the media—mounted in the wake of the Great Recession, and both have spurred significant change in Spain’s public sphere.
On the face of it, Spain’s media landscape is broad and diverse. The country’s 47 million readers have some 85 newspapers to choose from. Leaving aside the sports papers, the largest of the country’s six major national dailies is El País, with a print run of 360,000 and some 1.9 million readers per day, closely followed by the free sheet 20 Minutos (reaching 1.7 million) and El Mundo (1.2 million). The center-left El País, closely associated with the Socialist Party, was long considered the paper of record in Spain but has seen a decline in readers, resources, and reputation. El Mundo, the main voice on the free-market right, as opposed to the traditionalist, Catholic right, has been struggling, too, and even fired its legendary founding editor, Pedro Ramírez, last winter. The television supply is equally broad. A wide swath of commercial networks exists alongside publicly funded channels, both national and regional, with the commercial channels commanding about 80 percent of the market.
But this apparent variety of options is deceptive. The vast majority of the market is in the hands of some ten media conglomerates. The PRISA group, which publishes El País and its global editions in Spanish, English, and Portuguese, owns a stable of magazines, TV and radio networks, production companies, and, until last year, a massive publishing arm reaching across the Americas. The Vocento group holds 14 dailies, including the national ABC. The Planeta group, the world’s largest Spanish-language publisher, has a major stake in television and owns the conservative paper La Razón. While many of the conglomerates started out as family businesses, they are now controlled by transnational corporations or a handful of powerful financial institutions.
Over the past decade and a half, dwindling advertising revenue has put these corporations under heavy pressure. The Great Recession led to spiking debts. Massive layoffs satisfied shareholders’ desire for short-term profits. Meanwhile, the astronomical compensation packages for CEOs went untouched. In 2013, El País laid off 129 employees and cut salaries by 8 percent, but PRISA executive Juan Luis Cebrián took home more than $2 million that year. As journalist Gregorio Morán has pointed out, much of the current media leadership hails from the same elite bourgeoisie that flourished under the Franco regime.
What’s left of slimmed-down newsrooms subsist on an army of underpaid freelancers and interns. “The difference between the highest- and lowest-paid employees at the traditional papers is outrageous,” says young journalist Berta del Río. At major online papers today, she says, freelancers are paid between $35 and $45 for a piece of reporting, photography included. “Some don’t pay anything at all. If they do, it’s 90 days later.” Moreover, she says, journalists are expected to produce six or seven stories per week, all while keeping up with social media. This leaves little time for research or fact checking.
The conglomerates’ debt problem has directly curbed reporter freedom, says veteran journalist Guillem Martínez, who writes for El País in Catalonia. “Since the 2008 crisis, the banks have converted the media’s debt into company shares,” he says. “They have become the owners and exercise their role in 19th-century style.” Sometimes this means stories are suppressed. On January 8 of this year, Martínez recalls, Banco Santander suspended trading on the American stock market. “The news was simply not reported in the Spanish press,” he says. Other times, banks have wielded their power in the newsroom. Martínez remembers an instance in 2013 when a banking executive called up an editor and told him to fire a journalist who was tweeting critically about the bank. “I have worked for outlets where I’ve been told not to mention anything bad about a certain company or about such and such politician,” says Mar Cabra, who now works from Madrid for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). “It was seen as normal. Some companies or some political parties were just taboo because of the media’s affinity with them or because they were a big advertiser.”
The indignados’ takeover of the streets in May 2011 was meant to denounce not only Spain’s lack of democracy, but also the media’s failure to hold political and economic elites accountable to the interests of citizens. “The media in post-Franco Spain look like the very system in which they’ve flourished: a democracy with authoritarian tendencies in which citizen participation is reduced to a minimum,” says journalist Trinidad Deiros. “Politics and journalism have been two elitist, unassailable towers connected with each other while completely ignoring the average Spaniard.”
Nowhere is this connection clearer than in Spain’s state-owned outlets. Unlike in other European countries, many Spanish citizens see their country’s public television, radio, and news services as mere mouthpieces for the national and regional governments. And political interference is not limited to state channels. Taxpayers’ money reaches the corporate media as well. “There are clear grounds to suspect that the national and regional governments play favorites when it comes to advertising contracts, licensing, and subsidies,” adds David Cabo from Civio, a nonprofit pushing for transparency and open access to public data.
Efforts like Civio’s confront a political class that’s not ready to give up control. Determined to clip the media’s wings, the PP government has used its absolute majority in Parliament to pass the controversial new Citizen Security Law, known colloquially in Spain as the ley mordaza (“gag law”). The law, which took effect on July 1, not only limits citizens’ right to protest—in person or in writing, in print or online—but also curbs the media’s ability to cover those protests. Former El País reporter Miguel Mora wrote in the Italian magazine Internazionale that it “contains 44 articles that grant the government the power to fine citizens between 100 and 600,000 euros for three types of administrative infractions.” The law’s purpose, he added, is to elude the judicial system for the sake of expediency. “In effect this throws us back to the times of the Franco dictatorship, to a full-fledged police state,” he concluded. The ley mordaza sparked protest from entities as diverse as the United Nations, the International Press Institute, and The New York Times.
Despite government hostility and the economic crisis, a broad range of new, leftist media projects committed to democracy, transparency, and ethics have flourished over the past few years. Many of the new progressive outlets trace their origins to the newspaper Público. Founded in 2007, Público presented perhaps the first real challenge to El País’s hegemony over left-of-center media. The paper made a name for itself by breaking the taboo on airing the monarchy’s dirty laundry and harshly criticizing a deficit-reduction amendment to Spain’s Constitution meant to appease international markets. But in 2012, Público was gutted by its corporate owner, which shut down the paper’s print edition and decimated its newsroom. Público’s disappearance “worried many of us,” says Miguel Urbán, who before joining the European Parliament for Podemos sat on the editorial board of the leftist magazine Viento Sur. “It was the first daily in a long time with a leftist editorial line—a gap left orphaned when El País abandoned it.”
But what could have been a disaster served instead as a wake-up call. As the print edition disappeared and 85 percent of the staff lost their jobs, a number of Público’s editors went on to found innovative, independent media projects that were determined to sidestep corporate blackmail and shareholder strangleholds.
Leading the pack is eldiario.es, an online paper launched three years ago by Público’s founding editor, Ignacio Escolar. Eldiario.es has quickly become one of the country’s most-read originally digital news venues, second only to El Confidencial, which was founded 14 years ago. And, remarkably, it’s turning a profit. Unlike other online newspapers, eldiario.es has nearly 12,000 paying subscribers, who for a little over $5 a month receive early access to content. It still relies on ads as its main source of income. (Committed to transparency, the paper publishes a yearly summary of its accounts.) “Ignacio has done what few others have been able to,” says Berta del Río, a former Público reporter. “He’s built a strong management team that he can delegate to. His editors run a tight ship, leaving him time to be the paper’s public face on radio and television. He’s really thought this through, no doubt with help from his father.” Escolar is the son of journalist Arsenio Escolar, who runs the free paper 20 Minutos, the second-most-read newspaper in the country.
Eldiario.es is only one of a large number of progressive startups that are rejuvenating Spain’s media landscape. In 2013 two other former Público editors launched InfoLibre, which specializes in investigative reporting and runs only a handful of stories per day. Associated with Mediapart, a French online news site, it subsists solely on subscription fees. “We maintain that information comes at a price,” says InfoLibre director Manuel Rico. “And there are only two options: either the readers pay, or the large corporations will.” “The staggering loss of politicians’ and journalists’ credibility has been lethal,” Rico’s fellow director Jesús Maraña said in a speech this summer. “We try to win it back, day by day, by showing that it is possible to practice rigorous journalism without depending on other interests than those of the readers.”
Older generations of journalists are pushing for change as well. In January 2015, fourteen experienced reporters from major papers used their own money and crowdfunding to launch Contexto magazine (ctxt.es). Led by Miguel Mora, a former El País correspondent in Paris who quit his job in protest over a round of layoffs, Contexto pledges to deliver first-hand, on-the-ground reporting, and looks to cultivate long-form journalism in a Spanish media landscape that overwhelmingly publishes op-eds and short news items. With a clean layout, a blend of illustration and photography, and a focus on well-researched pieces, Contexto invites comparisons with the websites of major US magazines, setting it far afield from most other publications in Spain. “Our approach is minimalist and tries to respect the basic norms of classic journalism,” says Mora. “The big challenge is finding stable sponsors that are willing to associate their brand with ours and respect our ethical code: no branded content, no opaque or aggressive advertising, respect for diversity of information and fundamental rights.”
Like Público in its heyday, these new venues have risen to prominence with major scoops—often related to political corruption—and a willingness to break taboos while opening up their opinion pages to vigorous debate. In October, eldiario.es defied the courts by publishing leaked personal e-mails of Miguel Blesa, a bank executive who had provided politicians with lavish private expense accounts. InfoLibre ran a series of stories this summer that showed how the PP, PSOE, and United Left (the latter a political coalition helmed by the Spanish Communist Party) had received millions of euros from the same bank.
But securing a space for the left in print and online journalism isn’t enough, says Urbán, the European Parliament member for Podemos. The indispensable medium to reach the majority of the population, he says, is television. “Here the left still has a lot to learn and a lot of terrain to conquer. Spanish television offers no space designed to satisfy citizens’ right to information as a public service. Not even on the public channels, which are crudely controlled by the government.” Still, on this front there is movement, too. Contratiempo, a radio show run by a historians’ collective, arose from “the need to address the past from a space outside of the academy,” says founding member Noelia Adánez. Adánez also collaborates on La Tuerka, one of a number of online television shows created by the academics and activists who would later go on to found Podemos. It features in-depth interviews and sophisticated political panel discussions.
For parties such as Podemos and the citizens’ platforms that now govern the cities of Madrid and Barcelona, an independent progressive media is a key part of strengthening democracy. This means liberating the media from their corporate and political straitjackets. Recalling that the Spanish Constitution protects citizens’ right to truthful information, Podemos has included media reform in its program. But good will and new regulations will not be enough, says Trinidad Deiros. Journalists will have to change the way they operate. This cultural shift will take time. “A lot of work remains to be done,” she says, “for example concerning the press’s traditional machismo. The glass ceiling has yet to be broken.” Berta del Río agrees. “Journalism and politics are men’s worlds in which women are just trying to survive,” she says. And journalists will have to change the way elected officials operate, too. Unlike in the United States or Britain, says Deiros, Spanish politicians “would never stand for a journalist asking the same question forty times until it’s answered.” “But that’s our own fault,” she says. “We journalists have been too docile. Then again, our awful working conditions obviously don’t encourage us to rebel.”
The national elections in December will bring scores of new citizen politicians into Parliament. How will the new Spanish media relate to this different brand of elected officials? Ariel Jerez, a member of Podemos’s Citizen’s Council, thinks the country’s journalists have a long way to go. “Even in the new media, there is no awareness, much less a proper diagnosis, of the legacy of serious structural problems that have yet to be addressed.” Journalist Deiros returns the skepticism. “Will a government run by Podemos or a broad citizens’ front have a greater respect for media independence? I can’t say I’m too optimistic,” she says. “Of course anything would be better than the freedom-killing government we now have to endure. But the problems are too ingrained to change overnight. It will take years for us to lose our terrible fear of free and truthful information.”