Spain crowdfunded news site El Espanol aims for success

  • 3 October 2015
  • From the section Europe
Pedro J Ramirez Image copyright Moeh Atitar / El Espanol
Image caption Pedro J Ramirez - the "old school" former editor of El Mundo

It has beaten records before even being launched, but come 7 October the eyes of the media world will be on a new Spanish news site to see if it has found the magic formula to crack what is proving a major global business challenge: making money out of quality online journalism.

Pedro J Ramirez struts around the open-plan office of El Espanol, the designer furniture arranged so that the 70 journalists can work at their screens standing up or seated upon tall stools.

The charismatic founding editor of Spain's El Mundo newspaper, until he was controversially sacked last year, has a glint in his eye.

Pedro J, as he is known to friends and enemies alike, thinks he has reinvented the newspaper - but with no ink or paper in sight.

El Espanol in figures

  • Raised €3.6m (£2.6m; $4m) through equity crowdfunding
  • Has 5,624 small shareholders and around 10,000 subscribers
  • Monthly subscription €9.99
  • Staff of 100, including 70 journalists

"We are trying to provide an alternative to the traditional newspaper," says Mr Ramirez, who wants El Espanol to compete with the digital versions of Spain's leading newspapers, including El Mundo.

"That is probably why our project is different to all the others, not only in Spain, but in Europe. We are going to become the model. Paper is dead, with no possibility of recuperation."

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's party was alleged to have operated a slush fund from which secret payments were made

But why, at the age of 63, is Mr Ramirez doing this?

Could it be revenge on an establishment led by conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy that many observers in Spain believe brought about his ousting from El Mundo in a boardroom coup?

Although conservative in its editorial line, El Mundo played a central role in revealing allegations of cash payments to top officials from Mr Rajoy's Popular Party by former party treasurer Luis Barcenas.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Popular Party funding scandal caused outrage in Spain

"People say El Espanol is being launched to destroy Mr Rajoy, but Mr Rajoy is going to destroy himself very soon," Mr Ramirez says.

"I have a lot of defects but I never look back in anger. It's so fun to be a journalist that I am not going to get trapped in these low feelings."

Madrid bombings

He believes there were dark forces behind his removal.

"I think the economic crisis put a lot of papers in the red and this was the perfect alibi for the political and economic powers to interfere. I can say positively that in the Spanish press censorship and self-censorship have gained a lot of ground in recent years."

Mr Ramirez also claims to have no regrets about El Mundo's controversial reporting of the 11 March 2004 bombings of Madrid commuter trains. His newspaper pursued the theory that Basque organisation Eta had been involved long after the police and judiciary were satisfied that Islamist extremists were responsible for the 191 deaths.

El Espanol, which has been warming up for several months in a simple blog format, will consist of a general news webpage and a nightly special edition of in-house material only for subscribers displayed on a comfortable tablet and smartphone-friendly app.

The main site, also incorporating a "river" of breaking news alerts, is free to use until a pay wall is hit after 25 articles per month.

Image copyright Moeh Atitar / El Espanol
Image caption El Espanol has been running a preparatory blog format for several months

The faith of some Spaniards in Mr Ramirez is such that El Espanol already has around 10,000 subscribers before launch. The project also broke the crowdfunding record for a media project by raising €3.6m (£2.7m) with donations of between €100 - the value of one share - and €10,000.

Mr Ramirez says he will listen to El Espanol's 5,624 mostly small equity holders, who will have what he calls a "shareholder button" so that they can comment directly on the site's output.

"We are going to show that a media outlet can be profitable through both advertising and subscriptions," says Chief Executive Eva Fernandez.

Advertising will be relied upon for 80% of revenues at first, but Pedro J Ramirez wants subscriptions eventually to match that income. Ms Fernandez says El Espanol will become profitable in its third year.

But Juan Varela, a Spanish journalist and media consultant based in New York, has his doubts.

"It's great to have those kinds of numbers before launching but the reality for everyone is that conversion rates of readers to subscribers are very low.

"Because Pedro J is the first of the great old-school editors to convert to a purely online approach, it will be very interesting to see if he can find a model that works."

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