Thursday, March 01, 2012

Where Público Has Gone Others Will Surely Follow

The closure last week of the paper edition of Público meant the end of the battle to preserve what may well turn out to be the last general interest printed newspaper to be launched in Spain. Público had never been profitable even though it did manage to establish a place in the newspaper market in its short existence, the paper was only launched in 2007. Indeed, it was almost unique amongst the press in Spain because the paper showed increasing sales at a time when the trend for most Spanish papers is very much the reverse. 

I bought it and liked it. There was definitely a market for a paper more to the left of the almost centrist positions generally adopted by El País. The problem was that launching a new daily newspaper in the age of the internet is a risky business. The crisis has had a savage effect on revenues from advertising that were already suffering from the shift of much of this revenue to the web. The strange thing is, given the times in which it was founded, is that the owners of Público didn't invest more time and resources on establishing their web presence. 

Público was of course part of a wider project, the attempt to build a media group that would rival the power of Prisa, the owners of El País. This project was headed by Jaume Roures, and the same people were behind the launch of the television channel La Sexta; which has now been swallowed by the owners of Antena 3. The length of the crisis, and perhaps the lack of any indications that it will soon be over, have meant that sinking more money into media and publishing operations no longer makes sense for Roures.

It was always slightly odd that a paper controlled by a wealthy media mogul like Roures would gift its readers with books by Marx or Lenin, although perhaps Friedrich Engels wouldn't have agreed with that appreciation. Now the employees of the paper wait to see how many of them will survive the closure, as the web edition of Público is still supposed to continue operating. Then there is the question of how those who will be fired will be compensated. It will cause considerable bitterness if Roures tries to use the newly reformed labour legislation to get away with reduced compensation for those sacked. 

There has been some undisguised glee at the closure in some sections of the right-wing press, celebrating a situation where only one left of centre national newspaper (El País) remains compared to four (ABC, El Mundo, La Gaceta and La Razón) on the right. These people are not, of course, those who will necessarily laugh last. There is little special about the case of Público and the situation of the rest of the press makes it highly likely that there will be further closures. I will be surprised if the four right wing papers still exist in their current form in two years time. Surely those who criticise public subsidy so frequently are not secretly desiring a bit of the same?

Vocento, the owners of ABC, and Prisa have both recently announced huge losses and the pressure is very much on in these companies to continue to cut staffing and reduce costs. El Mundo's Italian owners have written off a huge amount of losses from the Spanish editorial group and the paper has extended what were supposed to be temporary measures reducing salaries and costs. These are companies that have some financial cushion, over at the smaller ultra conservative Intereconomía the losses were already significant for 2010 and can be expected to be substantially bigger for 2011. Any viewers of their TV channel who foolishly handed over money in response to last year's appeal might as well just throw their cash into the deepest hole they can find; the result will be the same. 

Perhaps fusions or a wealthy and carefree sugar daddy might help to save some of these titles but the situation is unsustainable as it currently exists for one simple reason; the economic model that is needed to sustain a newspaper in the age of the internet has still not been found. Quality of the product is declining in those cases where there was any to begin with. The end of printed editions for many papers  is no longer a distant prospect, even in better economic times the revenue lost to internet is not going to return. This is a something that should be particularly worrying for those papers with the highest average age of reader (La Gaceta and La Razón in Spain), they are the ones who will lose more customers even if the magic solution for news delivery on the web is found. 

No comments: