Spain’s Público: Media crisis comes from elitist thinking, distance from the people

Virginia Perez Alonso [Fundéu Español Urgente/ Youtube]

The media has lost its credibility because publishers do not realise they are writing for the establishment while the middle class is slowly losing its economic position, argues Virginia Perez.

Virginia Perez Alonso became deputy editor-in-chief of Público, after a career with El Mundo and 20 Minutos. Christophe Leclercq, the founder of EURACTIV, spoke with her for the #Media4EU editorial series. Pùblico reflects now on forms of opposition to austerity, an alternative in their view to populism.

Do you believe there is a responsibility for the media to counter populism in the light of events like the election of Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit referendum in the UK?

Yes, I think the media have a responsibility but not in the way that it’s been written in the past. I think that mainstream media writes and publishes for the establishment and what we’ve seen since the invention of the internet is that people can find information anyway, and not necessarily on their websites.

So the media keep thinking that they are important and relevant and influential, but probably they aren’t anymore. This didn’t happen overnight, it is a process that has been going on for five or six years. They have lost credibility because they can’t realise that they are writing for the establishment while the middle class is increasingly against it, because the average people are slowly losing their economic position.

So here at Público you don’t target the elite, you speak to the people?

I think we do, and more so than other media in Spain.

What is your political line if you can summarise it for a non-Spanish audience that does not know you well?

I think that this is a progressive, left-wing media organisation and we don’t hide that.

How far left do you position yourself? There are different shades of leftism, like the Socialist Party or Podemos.

We are trying to reach out to both. We cover Podemos extensively as a new phenomenon and we criticise both Podemos and the PSOE [the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party].

But I think that Público actually reflects the feelings of a lot of people and is not just all talk. For example, now we have this big debate about populism and this morning I was thinking about Leonard Cohen’s death and I wondered: ‘If Leonard Cohen had had success today, would people have called him a populist?’ After all, he did sing many poems by Federico Garcia Lorca [Ed. a Spanish poet, playwright, and theatre director who was assassinated by the pro-Franco side in the Spanish Civil War].

So you think there is good populism and bad populism?

No, I think that using the word populism is a mistake.

How would you then describe the movements that made Brexit and the Trump victory possible?

Anti-elite, or anti-establishment. That doesn’t mean that Trump is not part of the establishment but it was more about the way he was communicated.

Talking about the establishment, Europe’s technocratic integration policies are often perceived as an elitist topic, but here at Público you cover EU matters a lot. Can you give me rough estimates of your coverage?

Yes, I think that from all the information that we cover about 15% is on European topics. Most of it is about EU policies because they can affect Spain in many ways.

Does this reflect a real demand from readers or is it that you feel you should push these topics out of public interest?

I think it’s both. We try to be on top of polemical issues like CETA, TTIP, intellectual property and so on. I mean those are the questions important to Público and its audience. We are also very critical about refugee politics in the EU.

If I understand correctly, here at Público you use agencies, but you don’t have many other sources of cooperation with other media groups, with a few exceptions.

Well, we have some arrangements with other Spanish media companies in areas like culture and sports. For the political section, we have an agreement with a smaller publication to share freelancers. So we have tight collaborations, but not yet internationally.

In your previous position at El Mundo you pushed for more cooperation projects, notably with the European Investigative Collaboration. Can you say more about that?

Yes, it was initiated by Der Spiegel and it operates similarly to the Panama Papers consortium. They collaborate on investigative and data journalism, with each media organisation handling a specific aspect, and then they publish the story. I think the first one came out at Easter last year and it was about the weapons that were used in the French terrorist attacks in November 2015.

Would you consider developing similar media cooperation projects as well?

Yes, I would consider it and try it out, although Pùblico has a much smaller newsroom than El Mundo so we  can’t just assign ten people to one issue.

You have about 27 permanent journalists in your editorial team, plus about 30 freelancers mainly in Spain, with a few outside. Would these people mainly relay the work done by media partners or would you actually put an investigation team together?

I think it’s better to work with an investigation team, not only because you can organise better but also in terms of security.

You mean to avoid leaks before publication for data security reasons? Or to make sure that you have your own analysis of the revealed facts?

Both. It’s important to have a secure environment because of possible leaks and then because people need to talk among themselves at all times. I think that you can work more efficiently and have better results when you operate in a team.

Some say life is not easy at Público from an economic viewpoint. What is your revenue model? Are you suffering from the shift of advertising towards Facebook and Google?

To be clear, Público is currently sustainable. Our revenue model is based on advertising, and you can argue that this is not the best way of being sustainable long term, but at this time we are.

Are you trying to diversify both on a commercial and on an editorial level?

We have to think about it. I’ve been here just for a month, so I haven’t really had time to get into all this.

Other media organisations are looking at alternative sources of revenues such as sponsored events, branded content – including both native advertising and long-term partnerships respectful of editorial independence – and then public or non-profit funding. Would you be interested in this model?

We are currently looking at the option to involve certain foundations for specific areas. We already have native and branded content but for me that’s just advertisement.

And you don’t think that producing commercial content could threaten your independence?

No, if it’s labelled properly and easily recognisable by the reader I don’t think there is a problem.

Other media groups abroad that have a similar political positioning to yours are against these forms of revenue. Have you exchanged ideas with them or do you intend to do so?

I worked for 15 years in 20 Minutos, a newspaper that belongs to a Norwegian media group, so we’ve talked a lot in the Scandinavian and European sphere about these issues. The reality is that the media today survives on commercials, so as long as it is labelled and as you don’t lie to your readers, I don’t think there is a problem.

At the beginning of the interview you said it was  important to reach out to the people, not just the elite. Your French colleague, Edwy Plenel from MediaPart has said in a previous #Media4EU interview that to fight populism, one should develop participative media open to input from normal people. Are you considering efforts in this direction?

I don’t really think that this is either a problem or a solution. I don’t know how to say this without getting attacked, but I think that we are now in the middle of the great crisis of the media.

However this is not an economic crisis, this is not what we experienced some years ago. This could really be the breaking point between the audience and the media. So how do you repair this relationship? Is it even possible? I think it’s very difficult and also that smaller media and digital natives will have it a lot easier.

By now the legacy media live in another dimension, they have really nothing to do with the people in the street. I think it is going to be a great challenge for us too, but we are aware that for the media this is the worst consequence of the economic crisis because many people have been saying this for years.

Yet nobody in the mainstream media listened because they need to serve the establishment.

This is also due to the fact that a large part of the audience has moved towards Facebook and other platforms. Are you in favour of putting your content there to ensure its visibility, with the risk of receiving a lower share of advertising revenue for it?

I think that at the moment you cannot close the door to any visibility. Obviously we would want readers to access our content directly on Público’s website, but people are going to do what they want, so you have to reach out to them rather than wait around.

Advertising on the internet isn’t very profitable, but when you reach a million people through Facebook at least your brand is there too. For example, in our commercial proposals we actually talk a lot about our Facebook community because it is quite sizeable and advertisers want to be visible on as many channels as possible.

How do you leverage your brand commercially? I alluded earlier to sponsored events, a lot of media companies make money with them. Are you doing the same?

We are, in a small way and I suppose that we’re going to expand it.

The European Union has never tackled the media sector as a normal economic sector, unlike the coal, steel, car or chemical industries. The media has been handled mainly as a communication channel, asking you and others to spread information about the EU. Given its legitimacy crisis, should the EU consider measures to help the evolution of the media sector?

If you see them as a sector in crisis, why not. The problem is how you maintain independence when you’re receiving public money. In Spain, all media organisations receive public money and indeed they are often not as independent as they should be.

So you receive public money?

A fraction of our advertising is from the government but we receive no subsidies.

At European level there are several possible ways to accompany the evolution of the media sector. Firstly, regulatory help; secondly subsidised projects, like Presseurop (active until 2013), Euronews, EuroparlTV and Euranet Plus, which is now being reconsidered; thirdly R&D projects to help the media innovate. Would Público be interested in EU-funded projects to help you explore new models?

Yes, we would.

You had more experience at El Mundo, was there interest in such projects over there as well?

I suppose so. Probably all the media organisations that are not The Guardian or the New York Times or the Washington Post have failed to innovate because of lack of resources. So if we could have some help to develop teams that work on that, I think that the results would be compelling.

Are you thinking of domestic or cross-borders teams to help media cooperation?

Probably both. The risk with transnational teams is that smaller media companies are probably not going to be included, it usually involves only big media groups.

Do you think it is appropriate for investigative journalists to be indirectly funded, at least in the technology they use, by the EU institutions? Wouldn’t it create the image of an ‘establishment project’?

I don’t see a problem as long as the European Union doesn’t interfere.

And do you think that the journalists’ ethics and standards are strong enough not to be influenced?

Absolutely.

You have worked at a leading free newspaper like 20 Minutos, in mainstream media at El Mundo and now at an anti-establishment news organisation. If you were to address a conference of media executives and editors-in-chief, what would be your main recommendation for them?

Probably I’d tell them to be humble, which includes many things. We as media, not as journalists, not as individuals, we think that we are above everything, that we control public opinion.

Yet one of our major problems is that we haven’t listened to the people. For example in France and in Spain the economic adjustments to the crisis were ‘sold as necessary’, while people were losing their homes and had to look for food in the garbage. I think that was the origin of this disruption.