February 9, 2017
Photo [Casa África/ Flickr]
Lola Huete Machado is director of Planeta Futuro, a specialised website of El Paìs. The leading Spanish-speaking media publishes from eight countries in four languages, and tries to diversify its revenue model. This interview was conducted by Christophe Leclercq, founder of EurActiv, for the #Media4EU editorial series.
In the aftermath of the most recent international political developments such as Trump’s election and the overall the rise of populism, maybe people will care less about climate change and sustainable development. What do think will be the impact of these events? What are the responsibilities of the media?
This is really sad, because even people here in Spain people did not think it was possible. In fact, it is really incredible how a man like Trump could even be a legitimate candidate for the presidency in the first place. But OK, it did happen, and now the implications for climate change could be very significant, since he repeatedly said that he doesn’t believe in it. As for the social issues, we’ll see. The news today is that he will try to reverse Obamacare. So I don’t know, we live in very dangerous times.
Should the media play a role in order to counter these movements, at least outside the US?
In the US most of the media did not believe that he could win, that’s why they supported Hillary Clinton and only very few backed Trump. And yet he still won. So the question is: ‘in this election, are the media as important as before, or are social networks more influential today?’. I think that in this case they played a substantial role, especially with such a populist candidate.
In the Nazi time we also had one person who was in control of the virality of messages: his name was Goebbels. Now that we are in this new social networks period, how can we control the message? How can we influence the social platforms? I think that the media and politicians should engage in a debate about this.
Let’s talk about Planeta Futuro. Can you summarise what it is for our readers who don’t speak Spanish?
Planeta Futuro is a special project from El Paìs. It is a website that runs five or six stories about global developments every day. The topics are related to the United Nation’s SDGs or Sustainable Development Goals, which represent the new UN agenda to be accomplished by 2030. They were created as a roadmap to improve the lives of millions of people worldwide. We address topics such as poverty, inequality, human rights, child mortality and others. We started in December 2013, so this is our fourth year, and we have had a considerable impact in Spain because El Paìs is the only Spanish-speaking media that works in this area.
Due to the economic crisis, less and less public funds are dedicated to development policies in Spain today. Did Planeta Futuro help reverse this trend? Do you have an influence on policy developments?
Yes. We covered extensively these policy developments in Spain and we were very critical of the government’s budget cuts. We also tried to open a global conversation about these issues because, until some years ago, Spain was a very important actor in this area, especially in Latin America but also in places like Mozambique and North Africa. Now the budget for Spanish ODA (official development assistance) is less than 0.13% of our gross national income, which is less than the European average. It went down a 53% from 2011 to 2015, so we are in a very serious situation.
Let’s talk about the revenue models of Planeta Futuro. Your main partner is the Gates Foundation. Do I understand correctly that you are trying to diversify? Do you have other supporters?
Some, yes, because the Gates Foundation always works following the same principle: they encourage the creation of new models or support special projects, but the idea is to decrease funding overtime and incite you to find other partners. We are now in the fourth year, so we’re trying to get more help from other groups. For example, we also receive funds from the United Nations Foundation and we have a special project with the FAO. We have a reporter working full time at their headquarters in Rome; he depends directly from Planeta Futuro, but he is always looking for stories about new food and agricultural technologies, about the variation of food prices around the world and other similar issues. We are also currently looking at a similar project with another organisation. But right now we focus on this, plus some advertising revenues.
Have you ever considered private sector partners or should it be only non-profits?
We try to limit our partners to non-profits because private sponsors often expect to receive coverage of their activities and products in exchange for financial support. The Gates Foundation, for example, would never ask for special treatment.
How about the Institutions? Would you consider EU funding?
Yes, we are open to everything. But for the moment we rely solely on foundations.
Let’s talk about El Paìs in general, not only Planeta Futuro. First of all, do you have any idea of the proportion of news dedicated to international topics, probably mainly related to Latin America, as well as domestic and European issues?
The percent of international news in El Paìs is more than 50% because we have a fully American website, as well as newsrooms in Mexico and in Brasil in Portuguese. For the rest, our European content is probably only 15% if we only take politics into consideration, but if something happens like a terrorist attack there will be more.
El Paìs as a group seems to be involved in most types of media networks and partnerships. Do you think it is an overall strategy or did it simply come about because various colleagues got involved in different projects?
I think it is both. Sometimes the interest emerges spontaneously because we get implicated in the work of other colleagues and then we propose a project to the newspapers and they can agree or not. In other cases it is the editor-in-chief who proposes a partnership. Lastly, it can also be a group decision.
Regarding Planeta Futuro, what proportion of your content is written by yourselves and what proportion comes from the outside?
Partnerships aren’t very widespread but a lot comes from freelancers. We have about 100 people working for us in countries all over the world and we are only five full-time journalists. Two of us work between the newsroom and El Paìs, one is based in Rome as mentioned before, and the other two also travel to cover the major stories.
Yes, I check them sometimes but I have no contact.
Three of them are phasing out, Presseurop has stopped in 2013, Euranet Plus is at risk, EuroparlTV has been voted down by the parliament. These were all subsidised projects, Euronews has a diversified model but it has been taken over by an Egyptian majority-holder, which obviously changes certain things. Do you think it is right for the European Commission to start media projects by itself or should it work with existent media on a different basis?
I think that both politicians and the institutions have to realise that communications is crucial, especially in the light of happened with Trump, Brexit, the rise of Neo-Nazis in Germany and in France, the economic problems of southern countries, the refugees crisis etc. That’s why the EU Commission has to support media channels and make sure that the information reaches people in every country.
So do you think this is an existential question for the EU?
Exactly. The communication around all of these problems is really important. I don’t understand why the Commission would stop its support for Euronews and other similar channels.
There seems to be a change in approach, namely not subsidizing EU-controlled projects anymore or considering the media as a simple communication channel, but rather treating it as a normal economic sector in crisis and establishing a proper strategy for it. In the past the EU has supported the evolution of industries like steel, coal, cars etc. Do you think the EU should develop an industrial strategy for the media?
Yes. It is interesting and it also has to do with what we were previously talking about: social networks are also really important in communications today so I think politicians need to engage in this debate. They need to consider what’s happening with social communications and with human rights communications. The only things that people receive from social networks are stupid news about anything but the real problems.
If it’s stupid news about celebrities it is kind of neutral, if it is racist content it is not neutral at all.
Yes, exactly, that is the problem. I like also like to read in the newspaper what happened to Beyoncé, for example, but this kind of news is not dangerous. However, social networks are full of false information about the refugees’ situation in France or in Italy or in Africa. So the people can say ‘this is not true, it is something pushed by the media’. We have to publicly denounce this and to report the reality of the problem.
The Commission is currently attempting to have a say on the algorithm used by Facebook and Google. For the moment it is only from a competition viewpoint, to avoid them having a dominant position vis-à-vis smaller players, so it is not done on an ethical or legal basis to fact-check content that is published. Should we go in this direction at the risk of being seen as censoring?
I don’t know because of course freedom of expression is one of the most important things that we have to consider. And it is really very difficult, how do we regulate that? So maybe the people who control Facebook have to realise that it could be dangerous.
For journalism, the main principle is often self-regulation. There are standards but they should be set by journalists and not by politicians.
So should one develop something similar for social media, under some public pressure and encouragement?
Exactly, so at El Paìs we have a stylebook that contains all the principles on what journalists can and can’t do, unethical situations etc. So every organisation that has to do with media must really be realistic about what’s happening. We can’t keep on permitting racism, misogyny and attacks against refugees.
Did you hear about the upcoming EU anniversary in March 2017?
Well, it is interesting that you haven’t. It’s the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, obviously the EU institutions haven’t communicated enough about it.
Well, maybe the international section knows more about it. I speak only for myself because our Brussels correspondents know exactly when these things happen.
There will be efforts to re-launch the EU to bring it more dynamism after Brexit, including a roadmap with new initiatives. My final question is: do you think that the media sector should be mentioned in this roadmap?
Yes, it’s necessary. For example here in Spain most of the people don’t have a clue about questions concerning EU-policy. So I think that every effort by the European institutions to make it happen is more than welcome.
 the United Nations Food and Agriculture OrganisationChristophe Leclercq