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Oct. 29, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Spanish news startup El Español carves out a new digital space while competing with legacy media

“We arrive in a moment when people are tired of the politicians, newspapers, everything.”

Spain officially got another digital news publication this month, and as far as news startups go, El Español it’s on secure footing. It’s resting atop €3.6 (USD $3.98) million raised from a successful crowdfunding campaign at the beginning of this year (with donations from 5,624 people ranging anywhere from €100 to €10,000 to become shareholders), as well as money from other investors and its founding journalists. El Español editor and founder and Pedro J. Ramírez also threw in more than €5 million of his own money, the entirety of his severance pay received from his controversial ousting as the editor of Spain’s large daily El Mundo, which he co-founded in 1989.

El Español generated plenty of interest leading up to its launch, thanks to its famous, and famously outspoken, editor. But the country’s current political and economic environment may also have played a part.

“I think maybe if El Español had been born two years ago, or five years ago, it would’ve been different,” said María Ramírez, the news site’s co-founder (and Pedro J. Ramírez’s daughter). “People were really tired of things that are related to old institutions, including newspapers.”

El Español is now approaching 11,000 subscribers, the majority of whom signed on before the site in its current form officially launched to the public (a blog-like placeholder was already running stories over the summer). Non-subscribers can read 25 free articles a month before hitting a wall, while subscribers have access to the full site, a tablet and smartphone app featuring a “newspaper-ish” digital edition of its important stories, and other deals such as entries to lotteries for various sporting event tickets. (The cost for this access is €10.99 per month or €84 per year.) Given its remarkable beginning, all eyes have been on whether El Español can now sustain its initial successes and grow its subscriber base.

maria-ramirez-begona-rivas

I spoke with María Ramírez, whose journalistic credits include political reporting for Univision and for El Mundo, about El Español’s ambitions as a digital news site competing with legacy media as well as an increasing number of other digital news outlets. Below is a lightly condensed and edited version of our conversation.

Shan Wang: El Español’s emphasis seems to be on political corruption, government, and all things to do with money. Are there other any holes in coverage in Spain though that El Español is in particular interested in addressing?

María Ramírez: We’re very focused on politics, especially this year, because we have a general election in December, and there’s going to be some change in government. We will definitely be focusing in the next two months on politics. Also, because we have very good investigative journalists who are very specialized in corruption cases, we’ve already published some of our own scoops in that area, and we’ll continue to do more on that in the next few months.

Apart from that, we’re very much interested in anything that’s related to innovation, especially in science, technology, and business. We had some thoughts in the beginning about just being focused on politics and maybe a little of something else — in the end, we decided to go far more general in our coverage. So we’re covering sports as well; we’re doing culture.

While we’re covering all these topics, we still don’t have as many people with us as the biggest newspapers in Spain. We’re trying to take our own specific angle. For instance, in sports, we’re working with a lot of data, data reporting, which is something that’s still a bit new in Spain. We have a very young journalist here who’d studied in the U.S. and worked for ESPN for a while, for instance, and he’s specialized in creating graphics and using data to analyze scores and players.

Wang: It seems to me that El Español has been seen as a direct challenger to a lot of the major news outlets in Spain. What are the major differences, beyond the fact that it’s a digital outlet?

Ramírez: We’re trying to use more data and illustrating with more graphics than other newspapers in Spain. But in the past months, there’s been a change in the whole landscape: legacy papers like El País and El Mundo have tried to do those things as well, offering more data and more analysis. Still, I think we’re stronger at those things. Our first inspiration when we started planning El Español were sites like Quartz and Vox. Quartz, for instance, has that tool that makes it easy for journalists to do graphics. We don’t have our own tool yet, but we’re using DataWrapper, which is a free and very easy-to-use tool. And because it’s so easy to use this tool, we’ve been able to produce a lot of good graphics.

For instance, we had a lot of traffic on a piece we did using the last unemployment rate data that will be produced in Spain before the election: a piece on seven graphics [Spanish Prime Minister] Mariano Rajoy wouldn’t probably want you to see. We used the data to show that while employment has been higher in the last month, there’s still a lot of unemployment within the young, and the active population seeking jobs has decreased. It’s a piece that’s quite easy to put together, with seven graphs and text giving context, and it worked very well on our site. These things are relatively easy to do, yet quite new in Spain.

ElRio-el-espanol-screenshot

We’re also trying to do video in a different way. In June, we experimented with recording an 360 video of an opera in June at the Teatro Royal, which viewers can view with the Cardboard glasses from Google. We’re also working on video for the news site that has a more cinematographic style, which I think is also a bit new in Spain.

We also have a section of the site called El Río, meaning The River, which is a Twitter-like way to show breaking news and news that maybe doesn’t require us to do an entire piece. You can click and see a paragraph of text. We hope that works because that’s also a way our reporters can focus on the big stories of the day and let the average stories run there, and our readers still get the information.

Wang: So the goal is to become a more all-encompassing news site, and not just a place for investigative work.

Ramírez: Not just investigative stories, no. It’s something we’re good at, definitely, and it’s very good for the brand. But we’re trying to do more than that, because we can’t have a really big scoop every single day, so you have to do the other stuff in an original way, if you can. Of course, like everyone else, we’re interested in reaching a younger audience, and we think that maybe graphics, video, and short pieces, or science pieces, could work well for a younger audience.

Wang: How many people total are employed at El Español now? Are all El Español journalists based in the same office in Madrid or are they all over Spain, and what are their backgrounds generally?

Ramírez: As for journalists, 72. In the whole operation, with the developers, sales team, and everyone else, it’s around 100.

Most of our journalists are based in Madrid. We have a guy in Barcelona. We have a guy in Brussels. We also have contributors, in Spain, in New York, in London, and in Rio. As we grow, of course, we’ll want to have more people around the world.

They come from all over. We have some people from El Mundo, some from El País, some from the Huffington Post, some from the digital newspaper El Confidencial. We have some people from Yahoo, the office that they have here in Spain. And we have some people from university. So it’s a mix of people from legacy media and people from digital, and then people from university. Most of the journalists who work here were born in the 80s. Our average age is 35. Lots of people here are early 30s, late 20s. I’m 38, so I’m ruining the average.

Probably we’re the biggest new media site that’s started with so many people. At the beginning, we also had a debate about that. Maybe it’d be better to grow slowly as others have done — for instance, El Confidencial, one of the leaders in digital media right now in Spain, they’ve been around for ten years or more, and they started small and grew little by little. Our model is definitely more risky. We’ll see, but for now it’s going okay.

Wang: You guys have managed to raise an enormous amount of money through the crowdfunding campaign. There’s obviously a certain amount of fame and notoriety associated with the founder Pedro J., and that’s what most people have seized on when talking about El Español’s success so far, but that can’t be the only reason the campaign was so successful? Or is it?

Ramírez: Yes, obviously the founder was a big part of the success. But part of it also was the context. I think maybe if El Español had been born two years ago, or five years ago, it would’ve been different. One, people were really tired of things that are related to old institutions, including newspapers — sometimes the feeling is even that newspapers didn’t do their job during the financial crisis and during corruption scandals, in a way that I think sometimes was not even totally fair. The fact that these stories were not being investigated as far as they should have in the end created this reputation of the press.

There’s a lot of pressure, and not just from the politicians or the government, but especially from the big companies in Spain. So the idea that this group of journalists was really willing to pursue these stories, no matter who would be offended, was really seductive, and really important to a part of the population.

We arrive in a moment when people are tired of the politicians, newspapers, everything, and at the same time, we’re getting out of a crisis — there’s a little more money around, people are a bit more optimistic, so I think we probably benefited from that.

And also what worked well for us was social media. The fact that now social media — Twitter, Facebook, everything — is so strong in Spain, as with everywhere else in the world, makes it a lot easier for a new enterprise to reach people and to just get the message around. Five years ago, maybe you would use TV, or radio, or maybe these are not very friendly to you, or they’re controlled by the government. But now there is no obstacle. You can just go as far as your message will take you. So everything came in a good way together for us.

Wang: Are your readers younger, then, and not likely to be readers or watchers of traditional media in Spain?

Ramírez: We don’t have too much data yet, since we just started. For instance, we don’t have the age of readers. We have a sense that they may be younger, and we know that they are very urban, a lot of them are coming from Madrid and other big cities. On social media, many seem younger, but younger people are more active on there anyway, so we can’t say if we have a younger audience than legacy media in Spain or not. We hope we’re getting to them. We have some data from the subscriptions, so at least from their name we can sometimes know whether they are a man or a woman, but really nothing else. Now that we’ve officially launched, we can have a questionnaire and keep asking questions to know better who are readers are. It’s important.

Wang: What about the shareholders from the crowdfunding stage?

Ramírez: We don’t know their ages, but we know most of them are men. We don’t like that statistic very much! We’d like more women. We’re trying.

Wang: Given what you were saying about the power of some of these big companies in Spain and so forth, and given that you guys are looking to be very serious about covering everything, are you having trouble finding advertisers?

Ramírez: We were afraid of that at the beginning. For now, maybe because we’re getting a lot of attention, at least for these months, we’re getting a good share in the ad market. So for now it’s going okay, but we’ll see when we start publishing more things. If we find anything unusual about or wrong with a company, we will definitely be publishing it. We’ve had a small complaint from a company of builders in Spain called OHL who complained about a story, and they called someone to complain, they complained on Twitter, but that’s really been it so far.

We’re also trying to experiment with different kinds of ads on mobile that are not as invasive. We’re trying, but it’s really not very easy because the market is just used to the old ways of advertising, big disruptive display ads.

Wang: Is the goal to move El Español toward being fully subscriber-funded at some point, instead of being ad-supported?

Ramírez: I think that it’s probably better now to have a mixed model, to have different revenue streams — just in case. We would like to start having more events. But we certainly believe that the more you depend on subscribers, the easier it is to publish certain stories, to be independent. So we’d definitely would like to rely much more on subscribers than advertisers.

Wang: Do you have any other digital competitors in the Spanish media market?

Ramírez: There’s El Confidencial. There’s one called El Diario. That’s small, but very interesting in that they have a subscription model where they open all their content to subscribers at night, and then they open content to everyone else the next morning. That’s a model that we’re looking at — getting content to subscribers earlier, and opening most of it to everyone else. We also have here a version of The Huffington Post. They have a small newsroom and are doing some interesting stories, and they’re getting traffic. In the last month there have been a few other new digital media sites, although they are very small.

But now the competition is everything. It’s El País, but it’s also Netflix and anything else that gets the attention of your audience. We’re in the business of attention, right?

In Spain, Netflix has just arrived. But when Spotify arrived, it was actually kind of good for everyone. It got Spaniards used to the idea that maybe you pay for something online, and get something out of it. El Diario was also a good influence. I think they have 11,000 subscribers or so. And El Mundo was the one that started digital subscriptions and reach a significant number through that. It’s hard, but people are getting more used to the idea.

Wang: As you grow, what things are a priority? Are there any new things you guys are trying to build in the next few months whether its more subscriber benefits or other products?

Ramírez: We’d definitely like to do more video. Our app is here with a product specifically for subscribers, called La Edicion. It’s more newspaper-ish, where we put all the big stories of the day and try to have a beginning, middle, and end, but in a very digital format. So the feeling that you’re reading a newspaper but a very tablet and mobile-friendly way.

All these things take more time, and money, and people. We’d definitely like to have more correspondents. This is in the choice of our name, El Español. It means “the Spaniard,” but it also means “the Spanish.” Our goal, if everything goes well, is to build a brand in Spanish, not just for Spain. Looking at the U.S. Hispanic, Latin American market, it’s not easy, but I do have a wish at some point to expand, think more outside Spain. And for that, obviously you need more people, and more people to sustain us.

Photo of María Ramírez by Begoña Rivas.

POSTED     Oct. 29, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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