When a newspaper shuts down, it's always bad news for freedom of information, for plurality of views and, ultimately, for democracy itself. But when a local paper shuts down, it also means that many citizens are left without a voice to echo their concerns or keep a close eye on public officials in City Hall. The residents of Cuenca and Guadalajara know this well: both provinces have recently lost their print dailies. One might be tempted to say that digital outlets are an alternative, but the truth is that many readers in rural areas are digitally illiterate.
Not only are they incapable of using the internet, but their villages also often lack the necessary telecoms coverage to connect them in the first place.
In Cuenca, a province of 200,000 souls and an ageing population, many newspaper readers have simply not adapted to new technologies. The Madrid Press Association noted that among older age groups (between 55 and 65), barely 29 percent use the internet on a daily basis.
There isn't a single photographer left who makes a living from journalism"
"If the traditional newspaper closes down, people will no longer know what's going on in their area," says Elisa Bayo, president of the Cuenca Press Association, who foresees dire consequences following the shutdown of El Día de Castilla-La Mancha, the only regional daily that was left in Cuenca province. The newspaper maintains a pay website, although even that project has an uncertain future before it.
"How do you tell Cuenca's story now? Who will document what is going on? We are left without spaces to tell the stories that are taking place. There isn't a single professional photographer left who makes a living from journalism," says Bayo, adding that print papers helped build human ties in the community, because people read them inside bars, health centers, senior residences and so on.
Could the new online "micro-media" and hyper-local news sites fill that space? Bayo believes that one needs to clearly establish who is doing journalism and who isn't.
Many provincial newspapers were created during the Franco regime
"We have to establish the rules of the game so that the digital media can produce real journalism," she warns. "We're not there yet, but it's a matter of time. We need to learn how to work rigorously and professionally in this new setting."
Bayo offers a role model, Voces de Cuenca, a website that offers "information that has been checked for veracity."
All the experts agree that one of the main problems with the press in Spain is the vast amount of very small newspapers (almost 100, even more than in Britain). This is despite the fact that Spain is one of the EU countries with the lowest newspaper readership.
El Día..." at one point created nearly 200 jobs in the La Mancha region
But this media explosion is no accident. Many of them were born under the sponsorship of local governments, which were very liberal with their paid advertisements and other forms of subsidies. Other mastheads were created in the heat of the real estate boom: property developers built their own communication networks to favor their businesses, but the property crash put an end to these initiatives as well. Guillermo López, a journalism professor at Valencia University, confirms that a great many local and regional media outlets were born in the last decade thanks to the real estate industry, "which paid for them, either through advertising or as direct investments."
This media inflation did not just affect the print media. López notes that political powers encouraged Terrestrial Digital Television (TDT) concessions at the national, regional and local levels for radio stations that eventually had to close down, such as Abc Punto Radio. "Besides the partiality with which they were assigned, these concessions proved to be ruinous. There is not enough of a market to pay for so many projects with advertising. Not, at least, in times of crisis. This excessive, short-term expansion, based on the notion that advertising growth, very solid in Spain since the 1980s [sometimes over 20 percent annually] would last forever, made the media's situation even worse when the crisis came knocking at the door."
Another determining factor that explains the profusion of print outlets is the legacy left behind by the Franco era, when many provincial newspapers were created. López recalls that when this network was privatized in 1983 and 1984, there were two mastheads that were not initially put up for sale.
Print media played a huge role in bringing information to the citizens of Cuenca"
"One of these was El Día de Cuenca, which was ultimately purchased by a local businessman," he explains.
Founded 29 years ago, this provincial daily was once so successful that it reached a regional readership. At that point, the name was changed to El Día de Castilla-La Mancha, reflecting the fact that it now covered news in all five provinces comprising the central region (Toledo, Albacete, Guadalajara, Cuenca and Ciudad Real).
Meanwhile, its publishing company was creating its own television channel, CNC, and launching a digital edition. El Día... at one point created nearly 200 jobs in the region. But after months of failing to pay its workers, in April 2012 the newspaper announced a labor force adjustment plan (ERE) in all provincial bureaus except for Cuenca. Finally, on March 10, the daily, which had been highly critical of regional premier María Dolores de Cospedal, joined other defunct media outlets such as La Tribuna, Global Castilla-La Mancha, Crónicas magazine and the television channels CRN, 8 Televisión and Popular TV.
Investment in newspapers in 2012 dropped 20 percent from a year earlier
True, there are still some local and regional radio and television stations around, not to mention digital media.
"But the print media played a major role in bringing information to the citizens of Cuenca," says Lidia Yanel, head of the Castilla-La Mancha Press Association. "In the big cities, reading newspapers is an individual experience, but in rural areas it has a social dimension. If citizens cannot access truthful, reliable information, they will have less freedom to make informed choices."
The advertising crisis has hit Spain particularly hard. Investment in newspapers in 2012 dropped 20 percent from 2011. Since the crisis began, turnover has more than halved from nearly 1.9 billion euros in 2007 to 766 million in 2012. This collapse contributed to the disappearance of around 200 media outlets in Spain, of which 20 are newspapers.
Many mastheads were incapable of stopping the excesses of political power"
The trouble began before that, though, notes Andrés Boix, a professor of communications law at Valencia University. And the main problem was a lack of financial independence.
"Many mastheads were incapable of stopping the excesses of political power, because their role was precisely to showcase and praise the latter. They became propaganda machines for the people who paid for them, and owed them more than they owed the citizens."
A salient example of a newspaper created for the greater glory of a real estate investor, says Guillermo López, is the free weekly paper La Voz de la Sagra, which was financed by Francisco Hernando, better known as "El Pocero" (the Well-Digger), a developer of giant residential projects in Seseña (Toledo), which today stand largely empty.
The internet offers local journalism more resources than ever before"
Toni Piqué, a journalist and media consultant who is director of Piqué, Peltzer & Asociados, says that there are two relevant factors to explain the crisis of the local press. "The first is a loss of credibility. A very significant portion of those media outlets ended up being more of a mouthpiece for the establishment than a voice for citizens. The useless public works that we find scandalous these days (from airports and museums, to multipurpose halls) were paraded before the local media and hardly any of them raised their voices to alert readers about the fact that it was all nonsense. The growing discredit of politicians and politics has also tarnished these media outlets, which chose to become politicians' mouthpieces rather than representatives of the people. And that is a cancer to democracy and plurality."
Experts gathered at the 11th Local Communications Congress recently spelled out the challenges lying ahead for an industry caught in a period of profound change, marked by the new digital setting and the emergence of new business models, such as blogs and hyper-local news sites.
To many people, it is the local press that is in a state of crisis, not local information itself. Paper-based publications and their associated business model based on advertising revenues and subsidies, says Piqué, have entered "an irreversible crisis that will be more or less slow." In his opinion, some local dailies are "living dead": they are in the hands of creditors and these influence content in two ways: "First, by ordering cuts in staffing, wages and job conditions that leave the newsrooms in a precarious situation; secondly, by putting their political and business interests ahead of journalism."
It will be a miracle to see any new paper-based dailies emerge"
In spite of all of this, there is still room for optimism. Yanel remarks that the closure of El Día de Castilla-La Mancha does not mean that journalism is gone from the region. Toni Piqué thinks along the same lines, noting that local information has great potential for growth through other channels that allow more and better citizen participation. "The internet offers journalism, particularly local journalism, more resources than ever to be what it should be: an intermediary that allows citizens to control local authorities and public institutions, and a channel for community participation. That is why I believe that we will see an emergence of new media that will pick up where the local dailies left off."
These new outlets will be "smaller, more hyper-local, more anarchical, and they will exploit the mobility and social characteristics of the internet. They will resemble people more closely than current newspapers. And they will work."
To fill the gap left behind by the local dailies, Guillermo López feels that it is necessary to have a civil society that is aware of the need for media to act as their spokespersons. And the last hope for this seems to be online, because, like Lidia Yanel says, "it would be a miracle to see new paper-based dailies."