Twenty years of Catalonia in English

Catalonia Today began in 2004 as a free daily newspaper dealing with Catalan issues. Now a monthly magazine, it is still fulfilling its role

People welcomed a free source of authentic English material dealing with issues relevant to their everyday lives

The magazine you hold in your hand while you are reading this is a very different product from the first edition of Catalonia Today published 20 years ago, on June 15, 2004. Like all of us – staff, contributors, readers – Catalonia Today has changed a lot in the past two decades, although certain elements (hopefully the best ones, and that goes for all of us) remain unchanged.

Catalonia Today as we know it now is a full-colour magazine that comes out on the first Sunday of every month. However, two decades ago it was a very different publication. The early 2000s was the heyday of free newspapers. Although the concept of distributing newspapers free of charge that were financially supported by advertising revenue goes back to 1940s America, the turn of the 21st century saw a proliferation of such publications in cities all over the world.

Seeing this trend, Carles Puigdemont, who is now a political leader but at the time was a journalist with an entrepreneurial streak, had the idea of producing a free daily newspaper dealing with Catalan issues but written in English. Explaining Catalonia to the world, with the motto “Catalan news in English”, was one of the main principles of Catalonia Today from the beginning, and it remains so today.

The first issue of Catalonia Today as a free newspaper of 20 pages published from Monday to Friday and distributed in Barcelona’s wide network of kiosks came out on Tuesday, June 15, 2004. Over the following weeks and months, the newspaper became a common sight all over the city, particularly in the hands of passengers on buses and underground trains looking for reading material for their journeys at a time before iPods had become common.

The popularity of the newspaper in those early days was not only due to it being free and widely available, but also because it appealed to a broad readership. Even then Barcelona was a very cosmopolitan city, with many foreign residents who were either native English speakers or people more comfortable using English than either Spanish or Catalan. For these people, many local issues were out of reach because the only media covering them were in Spanish or Catalan, and because often they didn’t have enough cultural context to fully understand many of the issues in the news. Catalonia Today was the only publication that could help solve these problems.

At the same time, Catalonia has long been a country whose people have a strong need for and interest in learning English. Catalans not only do obligatory English classes during their time at school but many people – both children and adults – study English in one of the many private or Catalan government language schools that exist in towns and cities all over the country. For many Catalans, improving their level of English can lead to better job prospects or opportunities for study or travel. These people were always going to welcome a free source of authentic English material, and what’s more, one dealing with issues relevant to their everyday lives and interests.

Beginnings in the basement

Producing the newspaper every weekday was a relatively small team of people from a variety of backgrounds, but mostly native English speakers with experience in journalism, working under Puigdemont’s management. In the early days, the Catalonia Today staff were based in the offices that El Punt – as the Catalan newspaper was called at the time, before it merged with the Avui newspaper in 2009 and that led to the creation of El Punt Avui – used to occupy in Barcelona’s Raval neighbourhood, on carrer Tàpies, near Drassanes. The CT team shared the basement with El Punt’s sports writers and the Vilaweb online publication, and this is where they would remain for the next few years.

As the weeks went by, the popularity of the newspaper remained strong, but the publication failed to attract the financial support it had hoped for, whether private or public. Catalonia Today’s Chief Editor, Miquel Berga, comments on the newspaper’s financial situation in an interview on pages 16-17 of this issue of the magazine. However, the upshot was that after half a year, there was no other choice than to make cuts. That is when Catalonia Today became a weekly publication (January, 2015). At that point, the free newspaper concept was reluctantly abandoned and Catalonia Today readers were asked to pay a euro for their weekly dose of Catalan news in English, although the publication began to appear in colour and the number of pages was expanded to 48, including thorough features and interviews and the new Review section, dedicated to culture.

During this time, various members of staff came and went, including the publication’s first Editor, former Times writer, Stephen Burgen, who for a while afterwards was a part-time contributor to Catalonia Today. Staff writer Neil Stokes then took over as Editor of the weekly newspaper for a short period before the baton was passed to El Punt Avui’s Germà Capdevila. Yet the biggest change in Catalonia Today’s management was Puigdemont’s decision to move into politics, leaving a void that was filled by El Punt Avui. The support of the Catalan media group proved invaluable for the survival of the publication, which today remains part of the El Punt Avui family of products.

These changes, some due to financial concerns and some due to management issues, not to mention the evolution of the media landscape such innovations as the ubiquitous rise of the internet, meant that in December 2008, Catalonia Today reached its definitive form as a monthly magazine. It still adhered to its founding principle of explaining Catalonia in English and it still appealed to both foreign residents and English-speaking Catalans alike, however in four years the publication had changed radically.

Yet Catalonia Today had survived and to this day remains one of just a few media outlets that deal with Catalan issues in English. In 2014, Marcela Topor, who had been on the staff from the beginning, took over as Editor of the magazine, which entered another phase of its existence from its new headquarters in El Punt Avui’s offices in Girona.

By that time, ownership of the El Punt Avui media group had changed hands and one consequence was that the group’s English-language operation got a real boost. For example, Catalonia Today was given pages in Presència magazine as well as in the back of El Punt Avui’s daily issue to provide a summary of the day’s news in English, thereby helping to fulfil the group’s commitment to reaching out to as many readers as possible, as well as introducing the magazine to many potential new readers.

Our own TV channel

It was at this time that El Punt Avui invested in a new television studio and launched its own channel, which also gave a new outlet for Catalonia Today’s English-language content. Despite having only ever provided written material, CT’s staff and contributors were able to pivot and rose to the new challenge of producing television programmes in English. There was the documentary series ’The Class’, Barney Griffiths’ weekly look at the world of football with a panel of pundits, Nicole Millar’s, Marcela’s and Neil’s respective series of in-depth interviews with well-known foreign and Catalan figures from all walks of life, writer Matthew Tree’s weekly exploration of politics with a panel of experts, and for a while Catalonia Today even experimented with regular news bulletins in English.

This period of expansion also saw the launch of the Catchat podcast, in which Marcela, Matthew, Barney and Neil would meet every week, sometimes with guests, to talk about all things Catalan and preview the next issue of the magazine.

Unfortunately, financial issues would again have the final say. In an environment of increasing digital dominance in which consumers began to expect content free of charge on the internet, El Punt Avui once again changed hands and along with many other traditional newspapers had to reorganise to survive. That meant cuts were inevitable and in scaling back its entire media operation, Catalonia Today too was forced to reduce its activities.

However, the publication, for so many years the heart of the Catalonia Today operation, remains. It has survived all the ups and downs and, with two decades of experience under its belt, is arguably better today than it has been at any point in the past two decades, although that is for the readers to decide.

Colleagues and friends

Whether Catalonia Today goes on to see 30 years only time will tell, but this is not the first time the publication has celebrated a key anniversary. In 2014, the magazine celebrated its 10th anniversary with a special edition of the magazine, much like this one. The photo taken in the Girona offices and published in that issue shows the staff and contributors of the time, some of whom still work for the magazine. Still Chief Editor, Miquel Berga has been involved with the project from its inception, as he explains in his interview, while Marcela, Neil and Barney are still in CT’s main engine room. After so many years, Matthew, Martin Kirby, Michael Eaude, Anna Vicens and Josep Bosch all remain loyal contributors to Catalonia Today, while El Punt Avui’s expert page designers are always available to dig us out of a hole if necessary.

Meanwhile, former Editor Germà and page designer Floren Morante, who for years ensured the publication was presentable and has been ably replaced by Miguel Fontela, have moved on to other projects, while special mention should be made of those no longer with us. Terry Parris, whose inimitable column appeared for many years in Catalonia Today, and M. Àngels Ribas, who provided essential support and liaison with El Punt Avui, are much missed.

In the past 20 years, many people have contributed in one way or another to Catalonia Today, and sadly there are too many of them to mention here, as their names could fill the rest of this article, from the proofreader Joe Hogan, who was with CT until his retirement a few years ago, to the former New York Times writer Braden Phillips, who put in many hard yards as the weekly newspaper’s Deputy Editor, or Australian writer Brett Hetherington, who for many years provided Catalonia Today with one of its main opinion articles. All of these friends and colleagues have ensured that Catalonia Today continues to explain Catalonia in English like no other publication has or can.

feature 20th anniversary

feature 20th anniversary

El Punt Avui TV

El Punt Avui TV, the media group’s television channel, was launched in 2014, and soon after, English Hour began broadcasting. English Hour, which embraced a number of original television programmes in English, was Catalonia Today’s contribution to the new TV project. For the next few years, Catalonia Today’s staff and contributors produced a variety of television programmes, such as the interview series, ’Catalan Connections’ (Marcela Topor), ’Small Talk’ (Nicole Millar) and ’Going Native’ (Neil Stokes). Meanwhile, talk shows included ’The Week in Football’ (Barney Griffiths) and ’Our Finest Hour’ (Matthew Tree). English Hour even included documentaries, such as ’The Class’ and ’I/Eye Witness’. In fact, the archive of the programmes is still available online at: www.elpuntavui.tv/programes/english-hour.html.

A small team

In the past two decades many people have left their mark on Catalonia Today, yet the magazine is produced by a small team of staff members and contributors. The magazine is under the supervision of Marcela Topor, who organises the process as well as contributing to the publication. Much of the writing, translating and editing is done by Neil Stokes and Barney Griffiths. Miguel Fontela is the page designer who ensures the magazine looks presentable. At the same time, a group of regular contributors help CT provide original material, such as Matthew Tree and Martin Kirby with their monthly columns or Michael Eaude, who writes all our book reviews. However, none of it would be possible without the support of El Punt Avui.

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