Tuesday, March 31, 2015

181€ million to keep Catalan-language media alive

Front page of La Vanguardia, in Catalan

BARCELONA, Spain -- Americans are used to traveling thousands of miles within their wide open spaces and hearing only English, with variations of accent and expression.

But in France, Germany, Spain, and other parts of Western Europe, there are still regions of distinct languages and dialects preserved by geographic barriers, sedentary culture, and autonomous politics.

So it should not have been a surprise to find that an international media event in Barcelona, to which I was invited to speak, was conducted not in Spanish but in Catalan, that Romance language of northeastern Spain and southern France. Even Spanish presentations were translated simultaneously into Catalan. (Disclosure: The sponsors paid me an honorarium and my travel expenses.)

600 media in Catalan

But it was surprising to learn that there are nearly 600 media outlets in the Catalan language and that the government of the region has spent 181€ million (link in Spanish) since 2008 to prop them up with grants and advertising, according to a lengthy investigation by the daily newspaper El Mundo.

The grants, totaling 82€ million, are supposed to support the preservation of the language. But there was also another 99€ million in advertising directed toward these media.

El Mundo cited an academic study that showed a relationship between the amounts of advertising received and media support of Catalonia's independence from Spain.

Appropriately, the keynote speaker at the Catalan media event, Iain MacWhirter, of the Sunday Herald in Scotland, talked about the Scottish independence movement and compared it to Catalonia's.

How to preserve a language

In the same week, Judith Thurman of the New Yorker ("A Loss for Words: Can a Dying Language Be Saved?") described efforts around the world to preserve languages that are on the edge of extinction.

She showed how the Internet can be both a destroyer and preserver of a language. Money and politics drive both trends. The Internet has made dominant languages even more so, as with Spanish and the endangered indigenous languages in Latin America. And the Internet has also helped preserve the sounds, the grammar, and the dictionaries of some dying tongues.

In Barcelona, you hear Catalan spoken everywhere. The language is by no means dead. It is still spoken in many homes. Television and radio in Catalan have large audiences. But in the print media, the preference seems to be to read in Spanish.

El Mundo said in its investigation:

Even though 5 million Catalonians read Catalan (75% of the population), the demand for it has always been weak. In 2011, although seven dailies were published in Catalan, 81% of the population (link in Spanish) were reading their newspaper in Spanish. 

The publishers of the region's major daily, La Vanguardia, received a Catalonian government subsidy of 5.5€ million in 2011 to publish an edition in Catalan. But El Mundo quoted anonymous sources who said that La Vanguardia has been cutting staff on the Catalan edition and relies heavily on machine translations. Although politically expedient, it is commercially unviable.

Vanguardia can use the subsidy, like other daily newspapers battered by the economic crisis. Since 2007, its total circulation has fallen by a third to 140,000, and single-copy sales have fallen by more than half to 40,000, according to the independent auditor OJD (link, with charts, in Spanish).

Spanish for now, English in the future

It is impossible to hold back the tsunami of mass media on the Internet and its imposition of the dominant languages, be they Spanish, English, Chinese, or others.

The executives of Univision, the Spanish language TV and radio network in the U.S., surely saw the trend toward more consumption of news in English among Latinos. And Disney/ABC News saw an opportunity to connect with a young generation of bilingual, bicultural Americans when it partnered with Univision in 2013 to create a multiplatform media outlet in English, Fusion.net.

In other words, both organizations are betting long-term on the dominance of English. But both want to own that growing, and difficult to reach, Latino demographic.

For now there are two divergent trends in native language media, toward greater diversity and greater uniformity. Each of these trends has significant political and economic investment behind them. Like veteran gamblers, many organizations are hedging their bets and putting money on both.


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