Nine months after his appointment, the director of El Mundo, Joaquín Manso (Candás -Asturias-, 1977), describes the current picture and future plans of one of the most important generalist newspapers in Spain, founded by Pedro J. Ramírez 33 years ago.
Manso is the sixth journalist to occupy the most prestigious office in the newsroom, from where we spoke for thirty minutes about digital subscriptions, his relationship with power, the editorial line of the newspaper and other points contemplated in a roadmap especially aimed at attracting and retaining new generations of readers.
What is your first assessment of these nine months at the helm of El Mundo?
We have evolved in the direction in which we committed ourselves when we took over the management of the newspaper, that of maintaining the signs of identity, trying to ensure that there is a reflection of what a generational change at the head of the newspaper represents. I think we are well oriented within the demands that we have to maintain for ourselves.
We have changed the sequence of the printed product for the first time in 33 years, we have changed the design of the website, which is more visual, allowing us to evolve to more narrative formats, with more conversational, more casual languages. I believe that we are also fulfilling the objective of being witnesses to the society of change, marked by digitalisation, decarbonisation and the presence of women in transformational leadership.
In January, when we had not yet implemented the changes, we obtained record numbers of web subscribers, with 8,000 registrations. We understand that we are having the connection we were looking for.
How is El Mundo progressing in digital subscriptions and what is your quantitative objective?
It is difficult to set a quantitative target because right now we are above the best of the targets we set ourselves in October 2019, when we launched the premium model. This also has to do with the fact that there has been an evolution of the market itself and of consumer habits on the part of the citizen. The pandemic, in this sense, disrupted many of these plans, in this case for the better, although it is true that there has been revenue from other sources that has not been recovered, such as advertising or print distribution.
The subscription market gave a very intense push forward that is still going on. At that time, we thought that it was not going to be possible to maintain a maximum of 150,000 subscribers, and now that we are above 110,000, we believe that we can set ourselves much more ambitious objectives in the medium term.
It’s difficult, because we are testing the limits of the Spanish market, but it’s true that we don’t know them yet. We believe it is possible to reach 250,000 in the medium term, but it is difficult to venture into this.
“Subscriber audits lead to a toxic career”
Do you think it makes sense for newspapers to have their subscription data independently audited?
It makes sense depending on what for. I mean, to give a more transparent picture of the market, maybe, but what you have to know is for what purpose. What we have observed about subscriber audits is that they lead to a toxic race, where the picture is not only not transparent, but further distorted. If they make it clear to us what for?
I can assure you that practically all the subscriptions we have are individual, with one person paying and consuming, who may leave it to his wife, his son or his friend, but in general they are all individual subscriptions. In that volume of digital-only subscriptions we have a very low percentage of corporate subscriptions. It is practically irrelevant. The fear is that it will start a toxic race, as is the case, in fact, with digital audience measurement.
Joaquín Manso | Pic: Carlos García Pozo
Do you think that a generalist newspaper like El Mundo, with a paywall, runs the risk of losing influence in a scenario in which digital natives are gaining ground?
On the contrary. In fact, one of the best recipes for increasing our influence capacity has been the implementation of the premium model. We have lost practically no reach. There has been no negative impact on the reach of our audiences… Very little. What is perceived by the influential reader is that we have improved in terms of content quality.
The subscription model has educated us very positively when it comes to content, because there are much higher demands. This should also be reflected in the advertising marketing model: to go less and less to volume and more and more to a criterion that has to do with trust values expressed by the brand, with a link to the quality of our content.
How is Joaquín Manso’s vision at the helm of El Mundo similar to and different from that of his predecessors?
There is a common pattern in practically all of them, which are the signs of identity that have to do with the foundational nature of the newspaper. I think we have all kept it, to one extent or another, but certainly in a very high percentage.
The newspaper was founded in 1989 when Pedro J. Ramírez was dismissed from Diario 16 due to pressure from the authorities, and he was accompanied by 96 journalists. And these founding circumstances of rebelliousness, non-conformism and understanding of the social function and democratic ethics have always been maintained, in times of many difficulties, due to our financial weakness and less.
The novelty of this team that I am leading, more than a novelty, an evolution, is what has to do with a generational connection. We are a younger team than the previous one. Paco [Francisco Rosell, director between 2017 and 2022] was a very important director, in the sense that he stabilised the editorial line after some years of instability, that he gave it a very identifiable profile, which was something the newspaper needed at that time, because perhaps in some previous year it had become blurred, and he took the step to the premium model.
With these bases, which are very stable with respect to the product profile, we are making an evolution that has to do with the generational connection, with new ways of telling things and with a younger sensibility towards social concerns.
We make an effort to tell things in a different way. We try to be more dynamic, more flexible, to adapt better to new narrative formats, and surely we also have a vocation to act as a bridge to a later generation that will no longer need to adapt to these new ways of telling things, because they will have been born immersed in them.
“I feel very protected by the team, which often helps me to escape from pressure.”
What distance does the current editor of El Mundo maintain with political and economic power?
For me, the novelty is the closeness. In this position you are surprised by the number of people linked to economic or political power who are very aware of what you do; who feel that the decisions you make influence their day-to-day life and their position of power. You are subjected to stimuli practically every day. Every day someone calls you, someone summons you, you have to maintain a dialogue with representatives of that power.
I feel quite well protected, first of all, by my own character. In these nine months as director, we have been critical of any of these powers. In some cases, hard information that has cost us some reprisals, but I also feel very well protected by the team. It is a team in which I trust, which is very well balanced, in which each of the people who make up the team play different roles, and which often helps me to avoid the kind of pressures that have of course existed.
How would you define the current editorial line of El Mundo?
We are committed to an open society. El Mundo wants to be the newspaper of the open society; therefore, of plurality, tolerance, moderation and institutional commitment. We defend a demand for the separation of powers and transparency.
There is a vocation for centrality, which, due to the tradition we have had in recent decades, sometimes veers a little to the right, which is not a bad thing. There is an intellectual body of the newspaper that contributes a lot to building this line, which is in the centre and in some cases to the right, but we also have plural voices that are on the left.
Joaquín Manso | Pic: Carlos García Pozo.
2023 is a year of important elections. What editorial position will El Mundo adopt in the run-up to the polls?
We have a very critical position regarding the current Spanish Government because we believe that it has had episodes in which it has seriously compromised the institutional quality of the country and that it has a project for the future that is tied to certain extremisms that do not correspond to the vocation of centrality of Spanish society.
But we apply the same criteria to others. If it is necessary to adopt a critical position towards the Popular Party, we will also be critical; or, of course, towards those who are on the extremes, towards those nationalisms that adopt a position of exclusion from public life.
We are not going to ask for votes for any party. The newspaper stopped doing that more than 10 years ago. But we do have a clear commitment, an idea of Spain and a way of understanding life.
The future of Actualidad Económica
Do you plan to make any new organisational or structural changes in the coming months?
I always have to contemplate it, but in the coming months we have to take a step forward in the renewal of the economic product, Actualidad Económica. I think it has already taken a step forward, but we need to make it more visible in a clearer way, with a vocation to be a very influential product, to be a leading witness to the transformation of economic activity.
It is a brand that must serve to involve us as a meeting and confidence point for all the actors who, around the economic activity, want to raise a debate. It is a brand in which we have great faith. It has been in the Spanish market since 1959 and we are very proud to have inherited it, witnessing this transformation over many decades. That is the most important change we have pending in the coming months.
I do not plan to implement new organisational changes, beyond that, because we need time for the new team and the intense changes in the product -such as the renewal of the website, the print product or the economic one- to take root, to evolve and to get a response from the market, both from readers and advertisers.
On the part of the Italian parent company “there is absolutely no interference in the editorial line”.
How do you think this new music of El Mundo sounds in Italy?
The dialogue I have with the management team in Madrid and Milan is very good. I have come to the management after having been deputy editor for five years. I was the person who was mainly dedicated to management. I think I am identified as what I am: a person of the house.
If at any moment they have to tell me something to redirect the product or some question of management criteria, they tell me frankly. But one lucky thing we have is that there is absolutely no interference in the editorial line. Having an editor in Milan can be seen as a disadvantage, because he is less familiar with the social reality in Spain. Although, in reality, we journalists are the ones who have the obligation to know it and to work with editorial criteria for it.
We take advantage of that. We feel very free and financially strong because the newspaper no longer has a debt problem and has a profitability margin that is certainly higher than that of our competitors.
Has the sale of El Mundo been considered?
That is a question that is beyond my competence, but you only have to look at the track record of Urbano Cairo [president of RCS MediaGroup, the Italian parent company of El Mundo] to see that he does not sell. In his career, I don’t know of any record of having sold a publishing product or a company.
This is not to say that at a given moment he won’t change, but it doesn’t seem that his track record invites us to think that this is what he is going to do. In fact, he is known to have turned down some offers, because he believes in what we are doing. So I see it as very unlikely.
How would Joaquín Manso like to be remembered in the history of the newspaper?
I would like to be remembered as a person who was honest and committed to the values of this house and who made an effort to ensure that the newspaper had the best possible informative pulse, that it adapted to modernity in the best possible way and that subsequent generations, those who come after us, received that product in the best possible way.