Drummond Street, Carlton, 11am

In the far away country of Spain, where footballs are round and tapas doesn’t cost 15 dollars a plate, there is a national daily newspaper called El País.

El País means ‘the country’ in Spanish and no title is more appropriate for a paper which has shaped political and social agenda in Spain since the end of the Franco era in 1975.

Inside the newsroom mothership, journalist Guillermo Altares is taking El País into the digital age.  He has spent the past half year integrating the print and digital sections of the newsroom, as well as introducing video and blogging platforms to the El País.com site.

Guillermo knows news. He became a journalist when he was just 20-years-old and has since reported in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as edited Babelia, El País’s cultural supplement. He came to Australia recently as a part of a lecture series held by the Cervantes Institute and we spoke at his Carlton hotel.

What have you noticed about the Australian media market in your time here?

What is interesting for me is with globalization you have exactly the same problems here as journalists back in Spain. They have the same concerns about how we are going to survive in the world of internet and what is happening with blogs.

What is the future of online media from your perspective?

The future of media is a mystery inside of an enigma. We don’t know how online journalism works and we are inventing while we are working. We know what we have to do to get readers, to be as accurate as possible and to make quality news. When something important happens people go to good news media because they are going to find good quality news and they are dealing with journalists who know their jobs.

We have to fight for [the future of] our profession. The same thing happened in the 19th century with the invention of the telegraph, because the new technological invention made news go quickly. We survived that invention and I’m sure we’ll survive the internet.

Since the New York Times announced it would introduce a pay wall system in 2011, there has been a lot of international speculation about how to generate newspaper revenue. Will El País.com follow the New York Times lead?

In Spain, we say “no puedes poner las puertas al campo [you cannot put doors on the countryside]”; I don’t know if the solution is for people pay for online content.  El País is not currently a pay newspaper but El Mundo, our competitor, has a pay system. It’s something everyone is thinking about, but if there is enough advertisement people won’t have to pay.
The printed version of El País sells around 400,000 copies per day. How does the number of hits on El País.com compare?

The online section of the newspaper is growing. We have to ask if we can do journalism online as well as in print. I think the answer is ‘yes’ because online you can have video, links and the news changes.

You are credited with making significant changes to Babelia, the cultural supplement of El País. How did you make it more appealing to your readership?

We changed the byline and design of Babelia completely and we made it into a cultural supplement with more photographs and graphics. We also used the internet and launched a blog in February 2010.

When you edited Babelia you must have developed a deep knowledge of Spanish literature. What books and authors have influenced your life?

You cannot work as a journalist without reading a lot because your craft is your language. Reading and seeing movies has always been an important part of my life: from War and Peace, where Tolstoy writes an incredible description of how the French troops leave Russia to Manu Leguineche, who is a big Spanish news reporter. His book, The Shortest Way, which is a story of his world tour by car in the 60s, impressed me a lot and I know has made a lot of people want to be journalists.

Who are your professional mentors?

Journalism is a craft and it passes from one generation to another. My father was a journalist and I also know Manu Leguineche who invented international journalism in Spain. I have learnt a lot from the ancestors and I hope people in the future can learn from me.

You have spoken about the role of the media in influencing social and political discourse. What role has El País played in public discourse in Spain?

The media is not only a thing that runs news everyday but a sophisticated cultural artifact. In 1981 when there was a coup d’etat in Spain, the editors and journalists of El País didn’t hesitate and they put a newspaper on the street which said “El País por la Democracia [El País for Democracy]”. It is still one of the symbols of the failure of the coup d’etat. So El País is part of the last thirty years of Spain’s history.

Finally, why do you think narratives are so important for people to make sense of their world?

People like stories. We don’t know who Shakespeare was, where he lived, what he did, but we know each and every one of his stories. In a book by Mario Calabrese, he talks about how the New York Times made profiles of all the victims of September 11. It’s an example of good journalism for me because we don’t want to think of victims of terrorist attacks as being anonymous. You remember how people were in life by the stories of their lives. When you mix an ethical objective with professional journalism, you arrive at what is life.

To see examples of Guillermo Altares’s work, visit www.elpais.com.