'The best time for journalism'

Vilaweb's Vicent Partal Every Monday at 6.30pm, El Punt Avui TV airs the interview series Going Native. This week, Neil talks to the founder and editor of the digital newspaper Vilaweb, which is 20 years old this year.
What is Vilaweb?
Vilaweb is a newspaper. We say it is a newspaper because our interest is not technology, it is journalism.
How did it start?
It's a crazy story. When we started, Google did not exist, Yahoo was just beginning and most normal things today –MP3, Whatsapp, Twitter– didn't exist.
How did you get the idea for a digital newspaper?
It was a crazy idea, and sometimes crazy ideas can be good ideas. Twenty years on, it looks as if that was the case, but you don't know that at the time. Our idea was to do journalism and the internet was just a tool. For a long time I was a foreign affairs reporter, so I met foreign journalists and those mostly from America showed me the power of the net. So, in my mind I always had the idea that this was something important. I didn't know how, I didn't know what I could do with it, but it was something really important. In 1995, two companies in Barcelona got access to the internet. That was in January, and in March we decided to give it a try. But always focusing on the journalistic side.
Was it hard to adapt to the technical aspects?
That internet was easier than the one we have now. It was just html, which is very easy to learn. Today it is more complicated and when I speak to my technicians today I don't know what they are talking about. But at that time it was just html, so I bought a book, began to study html and the first Vilaweb was made by my fingers. It was fun.
What are the highlights of the past 20 years?
I'm proud of what we did, especially the fact that we could also run a company. It's not just creating a newspaper, it's also having the money to run it. I think we have been successful with that after 20 years. I think the most important day for us was March 11, with the Madrid attacks. The old media was very closely related to power and over those few days it became clear how the Spanish government was in control of big media. And it was only little media, as we were, who could just start asking questions. I remember the first article we wrote about the Madrid attacks; it was just four columns of questions. We just questioned what was happening.
Was that when you saw the freedom of digital?
Yes. I remember getting into a taxi and the guy in the taxi told me: “Go to Vilaweb, they will tell you the truth.” That was nice to hear. It was the first time that technology showed us that controlling the population through the big media was over.
Is there a danger that the new media will also end up under similar control?
That is two different things. One is how people get information. People today get information through social networks. On one side, this is a disaster, but people are also freer. It is a disaster because if you don't have journalists you lose something important. Which is the second question, and the one relevant to me. What is the role of journalists in this environment? I think we need to be humble. Our society has changed forever and the big media controlling information will not come back. We need to know the role of journalists. This is the big issue.
How has the role of journalists changed so far?
The way you check information, for example. There is a lot of information from social networks that needs skills to understand who is saying it, whether it is fair, checking whether it is real. People can now get the information directly themselves. As a journalist you are not so important. What we need to do today is to provide people with context. In America they say in the past media companies were seen as content producers and today they are context producers. People need you to help them navigate through a sea of information and that means ethical questions are more important than ever.
But isn't there too much pressure on journalists today?
If you are a journalist, you have no set number of hours. Journalism is a feeling, not a job. The problem is speed. You feel the pressure of speed. It's all about now, which wasn't the case before. You need some distance from the news so as to create that context we were talking about before. But the market, for want of a better word, is imposing speed on you. You need to be the first in telling that story. And that sometimes makes the process difficult because speed is not always the most relevant thing.
Are you optimistic for the future of journalism?
I think this is the best time for journalism and the worst time in history for media companies. I think the two-centuries old tradition of journalism, providing context and explaining to fellow citizens what is happening around them is better than ever today, because we have more tools and more readers than ever. For media companies it is different and they need to find a way to survive.
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