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The importance of being ‘El País’

Spain’s left-leaning newspaper readers could soon lose one of their only publications of reference: Público. That would be great news for main rival El País – or would it?


Top of the pile: El País is the country's pre-eminent daily. But it has lost influence.

One of my clearest memories from the years I spent working at the English edition of El País newspaper was a 6pm editorial meeting in 2007, the day of the launch of rival publication Público. These evening meetings are when the paper’s section heads tell editor-in-chief Javier Moreno what they are going to publish. I remember them as dull but rather tense affairs, where each head would deliver his (it was almost always a man) spiel, and hope not to have it verbally machine-gunned by the boss.

But on this particular occasion, Moreno began the meeting with an appraisal of new arrival Público. “Whatever else one might think, they have a very clear idea of Spain and who their readers are,” he said, giving the impression that he took the paper very seriously indeed as a competitor on Spain’s sparsely populated left-wing media landscape.

Five years on, perhaps Moreno can relax a bit. Público is in financial difficulties that could lead to its closure. But I was reminded of that editorial meeting when I read a lengthy and fascinating article by Jonathan Blitzer in The Nation that examines El País, its history and grand beginnings.

In the heyday of the Transition, Spaniards used to tout their sophistication by signaling their attachment to El País. Novelists and filmmakers from Antonio Muñoz Molina to Fernando Trueba sprinkled references to the paper in their books and films. But this was as much a street phenomenon as an artist’s prerogative. As El País columnist Miguel Ángel Bastenier told me, there was an expression in the early days of Spanish democracy: sobacos ilustrados, “illustrated armpits.” Everyone wanted to tuck a copy of El País under his arm; it punctuated a purposeful gait and affirmed a look toward the future.

But Blitzer goes on to look at the paper’s editorial and moral failings, such as its inability to maintain a progressive edge or a distance from the institutions it reports on. An overly inflated sense of its own importance fuelled by its cosiness with elements of the elite has made things worse. “El País continues to cling to a sense of entitlement born of the González years,” he writes.

The article struck a chord for me. When I left the paper just over two years ago, I had the distinct feeling that much of the legendary aura it had reportedly enjoyed during the Transition had faded. In 2009, the economic troubles of Prisa, El País’s parent company, had caused severe upheavals for the paper, which, ironically, was still making a profit. When Prisa/El País stopped paying one member of my staff for several months without giving either of us any explanation, I had to lend him money so he could pay his rent, as well as consider whether I wanted to stay at the company in the light of this. A few months earlier, employees (I among them) had staged a strike in protest at the poorly explained and hastily executed “restructuring” that was going on in the firm.

In lofty company

Prisa’s financial woes have been temporarily managed, presumably improving the atmosphere in the El País newsroom. But reading Blitzer’s article, I found it refreshing to see an outsider looking at the Spanish media in depth, and without the ideological baggage or axe-grinding that inevitably weighs down such pieces when done by domestic publications; and also without the knee-jerk reverence that El País so often seems to command.

And yet, El País remains among Europe’s biggest media names. An example of this was when Julian Assange chose it – albeit belatedly – as one of five international titles to publish exclusive excerpts of Wikileaks cables, along with Le Monde, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times.

When working at the paper, my impression was often that it wanted to be – or at least that its editor-in-chief wanted it to be – more like these and other prestigious titles. When Moreno oversaw a redesign of the paper, a new feature, “Breakfast with…” was introduced on the back page, the idea and format lifted directly from the Financial Times. Another new addition was the “Vida & Artes” feature – yes, very similar sounding to the FT’s “Life & Arts”. “I read the FT every day and it never has a typo!” thundered Moreno during one unhappy editorial meeting as he pointed to a string of heinous proof-reading mistakes in his own paper.

All of which is not to say that El País has become a Spanish version of the FT – far from it. But when I was there, at least, the editor often gave the impression he wanted El País to be less like El País, which obviously presents a problem, especially for those journalists who disagree. One of the main issues Moreno seemed desperate to tackle was the classic, wordy style used by many of his journalists and the impression that many articles were written not for ordinary members of the public, but politicians, captains of industry and other movers and shakers. But a flick through the paper these days still shows the same commitment to the minutiae of party politics and over-long features (I should point out that the English edition of the paper, in my view, avoids such pitfalls).

Cebrián versus Al Pacino

Another conundrum in recent years has been the Prisa media group and its CEO, Juan Luis Cebrián. Cebrián seems to walk an increasingly fine and confusing line, to the extent that he often invites Al Pacino’s line from The Insider: “Are you a businessman or a newsman?” He got the company into enormous debt through his dabbling in the television market, yet he still writes occasional (and extremely long) opinion articles in the paper, as well as books, and presents himself as if he were a journalist.

Público, on the other hand, seems to have taken care of the news more than the business, thus its current woes. If it does go under, it will be the end of a genuinely brave and unusual journalistic venture. Público doesn’t offer complete, blow-by-blow information, the way that El País, or El Mundo do. Instead, it takes an issue-based approach that is unprecedented in Spain, with plenty of left-slanted analysis and comment, that doesn’t drown the reader in facts, figures and unwieldy text. Sometimes this approach leaves too many gaps, but the paper itself seems to accept that readers will fill those themselves by going to other sources. Público’s collapse, of course, would be great news for El País.

Or would it? El País enjoyed thirty years as the country’s only long-standing and substantial left-leaning paper before Público arrived – and long before that, the rot of self-satisfaction had already set it. As Blitzer points out, Público’s punchier, more youth-oriented and progressive approach has nudged El País into taking issues such as the 15-M/indignados movement more seriously than it otherwise might have done.

El País, in a way, needs Público – if only to keep it healthy. And the country right now could certainly do with a healthy El País.

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Published: Feb 14 2012
Category: Iberoblog, Featured
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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1 Comment for “The importance of being ‘El País’”

  1. My own favorite edition was Friday the 28th of November, 2008, when the front page banner headline read “Zapatero’s €11 billion stimulus package focuses on investment” while, below, we were advised that his “Plan pours €8 billion into infrastructure in a bid to stem downturn.” On page two I begged him to desist, pointing out that “… there is no evidence whatsoever that reckless government spending … has ever shortened any recession and every reason to suppose otherwise.” Last Saturday, we learned (page 6) that Spain’s public debt ratio has doubled since 2008 and I suggest that, again, “there is no evidence whatsoever” that the economy has derived any benefit from this and “every reason to suppose otherwise.” Alarmingly, the Keynesian claptrap about “fiscal stimulus” that I condemned back then has not diminished. Indeed, the deeper the mire the more fanatical the pursuit of the policies that led there seems to become. Spending will make us rich and borrowing will get us out of debt. Ah well: when Cassandra prophesied doom, no one believed her either! But don’t forget … I told you so!

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