Good news for journalism: Ignacio Escolar speech Gabriel García Márquez Award 2018
Photo: Joaquín Sarmiento/FNPI.
Those of you who know me know that my best character trait is probably optimism. My optimism is so strong that at times it becomes a defect. I always prefer to see the glass half full, rather than half empty—and sometimes there isn’t even a glass. But I assure you that it is worthwhile. I prefer to be an optimist and misjudge, than to give up before I start.
In this business of journalism, pessimism has enjoyed good press. And that has often been due to the defeats of the trade itself. We have accepted defeat for years now, we ourselves forecasting the end of journalism. Death by internet. By the dethroning of paper. By social media. Death by bots and artificial intelligence. By fake viral news. By those young writers that take notes on their phones instead of using a pad.
I know that today, tonight, in this beautiful auditorium in the lovely city of Medellín, there are only optimists left. We do not fear the future because we create it. We believe that the future of journalism can be brighter than its past.
Pessimists say that journalism is in crisis. But our job also requires us to refrain from generalizing and delve into nuances.
The social function of journalism is not is crisis. It never has been. We were and will yet be necessary. Our work, when it is honest and rigorous, provides a great public service. Journalism is for stripping the emperor when he is wearing lies.
The demand by citizens for good journalism, the kind that uncovers abuses of power, is not in crisis either. Neither is the journalistic method. We know what is and is not news. We know how to investigate. How to fact-check and how to feed stories to readers.
The technological revolution has not transformed the essence of our trade. It has given us better tools. Algorithms for analyzing massive databases and transforming information into knowledge. Encrypted messaging to better protect our sources. New ways of conversing with our audiences, which today we can listen to as well, something we ought to do.
The journalistic method has improved with technology, which has also given us a much more potent and effective voice. The internet, simply put, is better than all the channels we had formerly for distributing information. The internet is faster, has infinite depth, and is much cheaper.
That is why, against the pessimists, I argue that journalism is not in crisis, not in terms of its social function, nor in terms of the interest of audiences, nor in its method. The only crisis of journalism has been economic: how to pay journalists’ salaries. It’s not a minor issue, because we can’t have journalism with journalists who make a living.
The collapse of the old, paper-based business models not only took with it many journalists’ wages. It also ruined the heart of the press: editorial independence. It is a luxury that only profitable media can permit.
When we started eldiario.es in 2012, journalism companies in Spain were going through one of the darkest hours in their history. Thousands of journalists lost their jobs. The economic crisis caused many media outlets to go broke and there were massive layoffs in those that kept afloat. Those that stayed on did so with reduced salaries, and—worse for our trade—fear in their bodies. Among others, the paper I worked for back then closed.
But we decided to not give up. With the savings of a few journalists and friends, we launched eldiario.es. We took advantage of the internet to become masters of our own words. We bet on quality journalism instead of viral news. And we asked readers for their support, but we didn’t erect a paywall. Anyone could read our paper for free.
We had to be very optimistic to go for a model like that, but it worked. We always thought the glass really was there, and today eldiario.es is one of the most widely read and most influential papers in Spain, thanks largely to the economic support of our readers.
The day after it was announced that I was the winner of this journalism award, I had to stand before a judge to give testimony in a case that had been opened against me. The former president of Madrid, Cristina Cifuentes, had asked for up to five years of jail for me. She accuses me, along with my eldiario.es colleague, of the crime of “divulging secrets,” for publishing the discovery that Spain’s public university had given her her degree without studies.
When Cifuentes lodged her complaint six months ago, she was still the all-powerful president of Madrid. She resorted to the courtroom to try to silence us, because she had no other way to pressure us. With other papers, she could have used more subtle and effective maneuvers. Speaking with the owner of a paper and making a deal. Or withdrawing government advertising, on which so many outlets depend.
With us, her only recourse was to take us before a judge, and not even then did she manage to intimidate us. No long afterwards, she was forced to resign, having lost parliamentary support, to a large extent thanks to information published by eldiario.es.
Cifuentes was not able to silence us because the was no one other than journalists to speak to. Our paper eldiario.es has no owner but journalists writing daily. And also because we are financially independent. We do not depend on institutional advertising by governments. We do not have debts. We do not live by trading favors with power. We depend on our readers.
In these six years, we have reached an monthly audience of ten million unique visitors and we have convinced 34,000 people—our subscribers—that it is worthwhile to pay for good journalism. That it is useful in their lives. That it changes things. And the best news of all is that we are not the only ones that are finding in our readers the answer to the most important question: who will pay for journalism?
It’s quite simple. Readers will pay for journalism.
Throughout the world, more media are finding futures thanks to readers. New digital newspapers, like ours, and also great print publications that reinvent themselves. Most quality newspaper in the United States are seeing growth in subscriptions. In that country, the newspapers are growing, although advertising is receding.
This is happening everywhere. Advertising is less viable every day when it comes to paying for journalism, because Google and Facebook taking all of that business. I doubt advertising will ever be as important to newspapers as it once was.
In the medium term, this will leave two business models for online journalism. There will be online newspapers that live off of advertising. To stay afloat, they will need to generate large audiences at the least possible cost. With few exceptions, they will be sensationalist media, slaves to virality on social networks where entertainment trumps relevant information.
But quality journalism will flourish as well, the kind of media excellence that ensured that the right to information and freedom of the press were enshrined in every democratic constitution. A handful will make it work through donations. They will be supported by foundations that consider, rightly, that financing independent journalism is a greater good that cannot be left to the designs of the market, especially in countries where that market is so unfair, inefficient, and self-interested.
But most quality, written journalism will be paid for by its readers. We will depend on them more than the press ever has in all of its history.
The press has always said, at times pompously, that it owed its existence to its readers. But let’s be honest; it hasn’t always been that way. Too often, the reader was not the client, but the merchandise. And the business of information was another: one of public relations, propaganda, and political lobbying.
But in the near future, we really will owe our existence to our readers. Among other things, because there will not be any better options. Only the media outlets that can secure their readers’ trust, respect, and love will grow and consolidate themselves in the future.
Readers that pay for their news are much more demanding. Readers do not pay for viral news or exaggerated headlines that disappoint from the first paragraph. Neither do they go in for fake news or news that echoes the discourses of power. All of that, unfortunately, will survive. But the border between quality journalism and propaganda will only become clearer and more neatly defined.
Readers pay for good journalism. For the ideals of journalism.
That is why I am so optimistic. A journalism of excellence is going to become a mainstay. Journalism that checks facts, holds power accountable, and privileges truth and the interests of its readers. Journalism that sets things straight and apologizes when it makes a mistake. This will be the journalism of the future, and not only because it is morally superior to propaganda, which it is. But also because it will be the only path left.
Thanks to the Steering Council and the Gabriel García Márquez New Journalism Foundation for this great honor. I hope to be up to the responsibility that you have handed to me, keeping in mind the many lessons bequeathed to us by Gabo: that ethics should always accompany journalism, like the buzz accompanies the mosquito.
Thanks to my mother, Montse, to my father, Arsenio, and to my wife, Fátima: all of them journalists. Thanks to my son, Íñigo, who for now says he wants to become an inventor and writer, although I haven’t given up on trying to convey to him my passion for this trade, the best in the world. Thanks to my colleagues in the newsroom, because they too have won this award. But especially, thanks to the subscribers of eldiario.es. It is committed readers like you that allow us to be free and set our sights optimistically on the future of the press.