El Pais journalists demonstrate outside the newspaper's headquarters in Madrid last month.
Three years of euro-zone recession have badly hurt Spain's media sector, where some 8,500 journalists have lost their jobs. Dozens of newspapers have closed and the remaining publications are sharply cutting back as ads plummet.
That's led to warnings from journalists, who see a threat to press freedom at a time when Spaniards want to understand why their financial stability is unraveling.
Independent newspapers and their owners are increasingly in debt to banks. "After four years of crisis, all the big media — there is no exception — the main capital is from the banks in all the big media conglomerates," media analyst Pere Rusinol says, and it's led to a radical shift in media control.
In a nation where banks have repossessed 50,000 homes for unpaid mortgages, for example, he says newspapers focus mostly on color: "These poor people," "He is not able to pay," "He has no place to sleep."
"But nobody explains this is because this particular bank has forced that situation, and this particular bank is seeking, at the same time, money [from] public finances because [it's] bankrupt," says Rusinol. He believes the banks' influence on media coverage in Spain is widespread.
Crisis Affects Coverage?
Llucia Oliva, ombudsman in the region of Catalonia, says drastic budget cuts have all but ended investigative journalism, preventing in-depth analysis of government-imposed austerity measures and allegations of political corruption.
"That's very bad for democracy and for the citizens who don't have all the information they would need to decide rationally when they go to vote," Oliva says. With broadcasters increasingly seen as mouthpieces of the austerity-wielding government, viewership of both state-run and commercial TV is at an all-time low.
The media crisis has not spared Spain's legendary daily El Pais, the paper identified with the country's transition from Francisco Franco's dictatorship to democracy back in the 1970s.
El Pais' newsroom has many empty desks and there aren't enough journalists to answer phones. Brigido Gomez, secretary of El Pais' reporters union says last month 129 journalists — one-third of the total newsroom — were laid off, and the remaining staff salaries were cut by 13 percent.
Reporters reacted with a three-day strike and what has become a vocal daily protest. Outside the 6 p.m. editorial meeting, reporters hold copies of the paper upside down and count out the number of lay-offs.
"We continue to count. We continue to fight. We don't stop," Gomez says.
The layoffs came as a shock. El Pais has always been one of Europe's most profitable papers. But its parent company Prisa is now $4.5 billion in the red. El Pais management denies the layoffs are meant to offset Prisa's debts.
"We are trying to do a newspaper for the contemporary times, thinking about another model of newspaper, to be the Spanish global newspaper," says Pedro Zuazua, a spokesman for El Pais.
Finding A New Outlet
Ramon Lobo, the paper's veteran war correspondent, is among the 129 journalists laid off. Today, he says, El Pais is doing "cheap journalism" and he fears El Pais will soon join the ranks of discredited media.
"Journalism that we cut-and-paste. We use the wires, but we don't go to see the things by our eyes. Papers become the same papers, the same photos, the same news, the same titles. So, we are losing the quality of information," Lobo says.
The crisis of confidence in the media, he says, is further undermining civic society, already weakened by drastic cuts.
"We are losing freedom of speech, we are losing diversity of opinions, we are becoming more afraid. Don't speak. Don't lose your job. We are making a society of people afraid, and I think we must fight for a society of people that feel free," Lobo says.
Lobo and many other laid-off journalists are now turning to the Web to try to create alternative sources of news and analysis in an effort to fill the widening vacuum of independent information.
In the last three years, some 8,500 Spanish journalists have lost their jobs.