MediaShift associate editor Jennifer Woodard Maderazo recently relocated to Barcelona, Spain, and will be writing for MediaShift from there on topics related to new media both in the U.S. and in Europe
From a picture window in an office from where I am writing in the Gracia neighborhood of Barcelona, I can see the same sights I could see from a similar window in my former neighborhood in San Francisco: pedestrians, taxis, cafes and bookstores. But there is something different about my view here: I can spot three different storefronts specializing in newspapers and magazines, all on one block and on one side of the street. A couple of yards away, there are more newsstands. A visit to the corner cafe reveals something else that’s rather curious: the room full of coffee drinkers is full of people reading the news — not on laptops or iPhones — but on good old-fashioned pulp.
Is print alive and well in Spain? For now, it seems so. Last year the National Statistics Institute here released data which showed that Spaniards are buying more newspapers than they were five years ago — a trend that is just the opposite in many other countries. The national average of daily newspaper readers in Spain increased from 36.3 percent in 2000 to 41.8 percent in 2006. But even with those statistics, some media experts believe there are reasons to worry that newspapers here might follow the same downward trend of their U.S. counterparts.
A few months ago I told you all about my split with print publications and my near total conversion to online media for news. In contrast, most of the good citizens of Barcelona, arguably the country’s tech capital, seem to get their news the old fashioned way. I wondered why, and while I don’t have a definitive answer and my speculations are those of an outsider, I have a few theories:
Small businesses still thrive in Spain. Newspaper stands, like fruit stands, fish markets, hardware stores and bakeries, tend to be mom-and-pop operations. Multinational businesses like Starbucks and Ikea have crept into Spain and Spanish companies also operate large stores of all types, but the small family business is still around. I can’t imagine even a quarter of the newspaper stands in a typical U.S. city being able to survive selling print publications, but here they seem to manage.
In addition, business transactions in these shops are more personal experiences. Perhaps it’s more appealing to go down and buy the newspaper from the same nice shopkeeper every day or every weekend, and the rewards of that one bit of personal interaction might outweigh the questionable rewards we reap by staring blankly at laptop screens and clicking around.
I decided to try it out. I went to what they call a “paper store” — a shop selling office supplies as well as some print media — and bought a magazine. The older woman who rang me up, more than likely the owner, let me know that the issue of Time Out Barcelona I was about to purchase was going to expire tomorrow, and advised me to wait until then to get a copy. She went on to tell me that Time Out Barcelona had only been in circulation a couple of months, but that it’s much better than the other local-happenings publication, because of the wide array of topics it covers, and because the content is more interesting and well-written.
I’ve found that purchases here tend to come with such service. Many people tell me that Barcelona isn’t like the rest of Spain, where these interactions are often more frequent and lengthy, but there is this sort of social dance that is done with transactions, and if you give up the daily paper you give up that interaction.
Many Spaniards — particularly men — have three places they go daily: work, home and “the bar.” The bar is actually more of a cafe, and there are several on almost every street. The bar is a place where you meet up with other regulars, have a coffee, read the paper or — even better — talk news with others. In this city, plagued by water shortages, hellish traffic, rising housing costs and other urban maladies, people love to talk news and the bar is the perfect place to do that.
Where would a laptop fit into all this? Who needs online news when the paper’s sitting right on the bar and the guy next to you isn’t shy about sharing his opinion on what’s printed there? Catalonian blogger Jordi Soro told me he believes that the survival of print in Spain has a lot to do with cafe culture. “For me, the print newspaper is an extremely important part of my morning coffee ritual at the bar,” he said. That’s surprising, considering Soro is a tech and gadget blogger. And there are more like him who live in the digital world but prefer ink.
Author and blogger Alfredo Hoces is one of them. Hoces told me he believes print is far from disappearing here because, unlike most Americans, Spaniards actually take time out of their day to relax and read in a public place.
“That’s something I love about Spain,” he said. “We don’t always go for what people tell us is the most practical thing, and we aren’t obsessed with everything being fast. We prefer to read our news sitting down, calmly at the bar.”
People like to talk to each other, hear other people’s opinions, see themselves reflected and argue about news. While younger Spaniards might be using RSS feeds to keep up with news and Twitter to mimic that offline cafe culture, there are still people here who like to chat in person with people they know about important topics. Imagine that.
In addition, more than one person told me that walking around with a certain newspaper under your arm or reading it in a cafe means something here — it’s a way of showing other people your political leanings. The paper you read defines who you are (socialist, monarchical, conservative, etc.), and you can’t show off a website in the same way.
Limited WiFi and Aging Population
On previous visits to this fair city, I have spent many an hour hunting in vain for a WiFi signal in cafes and all the other likely spots. The city was set to get municipal WiFi launched back in 2004, but the plan was eventually nixed by the Spanish Telecommunications Market Regulator, which claimed it infringed on free competition. So far, I’ve only been able to find truly free WiFi at libraries and a couple of pizza joints. It’s not non-existent, it’s just hard to find and limited.
Barcelona isn’t alone. A friend of mine in Sevilla tells me that there are four Starbucks stores in his city, and none of them offer WiFi. “The rare cafe that offers it does so only in the evenings, and makes you pay for it, and it’s very expensive,” he says. So when you want to relax with the news, it’s the paper version or none at all.
In addition to lack of accessible WiFi public spaces, Spain also has one of the lowest birth rates in the world and an aging population that hasn’t quite caught on yet to the idea of accessing news and other information online. So newspapers and television are still the primary means of accessing news for many people.
Not Such a Rosy Situation for Print?
With all of these reasons for the continued survival of the newspaper, one might think that print in Spain is set for a long life. But in speaking with Jose Luis Orihuela, a professor at the University of Navarra and an expert in new media, I began to wonder whether or not I might be wrong. Professor Orihuela doesn’t share my vision of the stability of print here in Spain.
“Print newspapers have a future, but they won’t be like ones we have now,” he said. “Seeing the impact that the Internet has had on distribution methods and the way information is consumed, it becomes more and more evident that paper is an inefficient platform. That applies both to its value proposition of ‘I’ll tell you what happened yesterday’ as well as its business model.” He says that Spain is not immune to the downward spiral that print publications have seen in other parts of the world.
But, I asked, what about the statistics which show that in 2007, there were more daily print newspaper readers than in the past four years? Orihuela is skeptical, and points to statistics which show that Spanish newspapers lag significantly behind their European counterparts with regard to circulation. In addition, and perhaps more worrisome, are the statistics for young people: In 2006, only 26.2 percent of the population aged 14-19 read the papers regularly, while the statistic for the general population was 10 percent higher. And just today statistics were released here in Barcelona which show that half the city now has an Internet connection at home.
While the majority of people that I talked to said they preferred to buy the paper — for the reasons we’ve talked about above — there were a few who told me the opposite. Cristina Martin, a Spanish teacher, says that she used to be a die-hard print newspaper reader, and would never miss an issue of the Sunday paper and the ritual of going out to buy it, along with a trip to the bakery for bread. But now she says that ritual has been replaced with one that starts with the online version of her favorite paper and a cup of coffee at home.
“I don’t need [the print paper] anymore,” she said. “I have the Internet, it’s free and it’s just easier. I do miss going to the newsstand and the ritual around it, but that’s not enough for me to go back.”
As Spain moves toward higher Internet adoption and if trends continue as%