At El País, a Newsroom Turns on Itself


imageDuring the final weeks of 2012, a strange routine started in the newsroom of El País newspaper in Madrid. As the heads of sections entered a conference room for their daily 6 p.m. meeting with the editor-in-chief, almost all the publication’s other journalists would stop working and start to count out loud up to 129.

That ritual has now stopped. But the number 129 remains significant. That is how many employees El País laid off – about a third of its workforce – at the end of 2012. It was the latest attempt by the paper’s owner, the massive media group Prisa, to slash costs and remain a relevant force in 21st century journalism.

Seeing Red

Many of El País’s journalists believe Prisa’s cutbacks – which have also included salary reductions – show how an obsession with the bottom line threatens the integrity of what has for four decades been Spain’s most credible and venerated source of news.

“We believe this mass firing is inconsistent with the project that El País represents and we express our profound condemnation,” read a statement issued by several of the paper’s European correspondents in December, after the layoffs were confirmed.

Journalists have also carried out more concrete protests in recent months, including a strike and a “byline boycott,” in which many reporters refused to sign their articles.

Such actions reflect the hurt and anger that this conflict has generated. But they also point to how bad things have become for El País’s owner.

Boom Times Go Bust

The financial troubles of Prisa, which owns several other publications, radio stations and the publishing house Santillana, have been well-publicised. Having accumulated a 4.7-billion euro debt, due mainly thanks to its forays into television, in 2010 Prisa sold off a 70 percent holding in the group to the U.S. investors Liberty.

That move kept the company afloat. But the pressures of the economic downturn have slashed revenues across the group. El País had been a relative exception, still making a profit despite Spain’s deep crisis. But last year, for the first time, the newspaper made a loss.
“Prisa grew too much. Something which started out as just a newspaper grew to other sectors, then to Latin America and now it’s paying the consequences,” said professor of journalism Bernardo Díaz Nosty, who is the author of several books about the media.

Díaz Nosty says that during its decade-long economic boom, which ended in 2008, Spain experienced a “media bubble,” with TV and radio stations and newspapers cropping up across the country. The crash, when it came, showed many of those projects, as well as more traditional ones, to be unsustainable. In recent months, Público, a national left-leaning newspaper founded in 2007, folded its paper edition, while one of Spain’s biggest regional TV channels, Telemadrid, has sacked over 800 workers.

Many blame Prisa’s overstretching on its CEO, Juan Luis Cebrián. The founding editor of El País, Cebrián made a name for himself as a dynamic journalist who ensured that the newspaper, set up in 1976, the year after dictator Francisco Franco’s death, played a key role in Spanish society’s shift to democracy.

But these days he is known as a jet-setting businessman, albeit one who has saddled his creation with crippling debt.

The revelation that Cebrián earned €13 million in 2011 has sealed his status as a pariah figure for many El País staff.

“There’s an almost unanimous feeling of bitterness that no one is representing [us],” says one journalist who has been at the newspaper for nearly a decade.

“Before, there was implicit trust that although [Prisa] wanted to make a buck, they did care how it was done. The paper was a project, a shared idea representing democracy and a modern Spain and it was a quality environment for journalists to work in. Now, no one looks at the editor of El País and says ‘he’s fighting our corner.’”
To many people’s surprise, that editor, Javier Moreno, has backed to the hilt Cebrián’s argument that deep cuts are necessary.

So Goes Quality

Indeed, the battle lines that have been drawn in the newspaper often seem to pit lower- and middle-ranking journalists against their immediate superiors, as well as against Prisa’s executives. Highlighting the belligerent atmosphere, an unsigned opinion article published by the paper and titled “To Our Readers” hit back at the “populist demagoguery” and “escalating verbal attacks” of its own workers.

“For the first time in its history, El País has announced losses and the outlook for the sector over the coming year is more than worrying,” the article continued. “Major newspapers across the world, such as The New York Times, Le Monde and The Guardian are seeing identical trends and have suffered salary and personnel cuts similar to those announced by El País.”

El País’s costs have now been drastically reduced, but as Bernardo Díaz Nosty points out, a daunting new challenge arises for a paper that is selling around 440,000 copies each day and whose sales are dropping.

“The problem that newspapers have when they fire staff is that the quality drops,” he says. “And as a result, demand then drops too.”

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