The Cost of Free Journalism

Independent, pluralist, transparent, rigorous. These words and many others are displayed in large print on the walls of the newsroom at El Confidencial, Spain’s most read digital newspaper. “We’re free. We don’t have corporate interests on our board of directors. We have people. Most of the Spanish newspapers have an ideology, but here we don’t,” explained Álvaro Rigal, editor-in-chief, to a group of students from the University of California that recently had the opportunity to visit the media headquarters.

Following this introduction, students quizzed Rigal about the newspaper’s sources of funding. He pointed out that advertising was the main source of funding, together with an expanding market of branded content and different events run by the company.

Founded in 2001 when internet was timidly arriving in Spain, four journalists took a risk to create an exclusively online newspaper, with a newsroom set up in the garage of one of their homes. The coverage was initially specialized in economic issues and carried the tagline, “the newspaper of influential readers.” Readership was targeted among large companies and their leadership. El Confidencial has since broadened its coverage and readership. Eighteen years later, the newsroom employs a staff of 160 employees and saw site visits increase 58% in the last year.

In fact, their audience increased significantly when El Confidencial was chosen as the media outlet of the Panama papers in Spain in 2016, one of the biggest leaks in the history of journalism. “11.5 million documents, 300 hundred journalists from all over the world working together, one year of investigation to publish the scoop on the same day, at the same time,” Daniele Grasso, data journalist, told the students, as they thought back to the editor’s comments on the newspaper’s refusal of corporate influence.

After the discussion, students had the chance to do a guided tour of the facilities and meet other journalists on-site. The visit, led by local Accent Madrid faculty Daniel Espín, was part of a series of experiential learning activities for his Spanish Mass Media and Society course. Through the analysis of different media existing from the Spanish dictatorial regime to present, the course provides students an overview of the field and media’s impact on Spanish public opinion.