Ismael Nafría is a journalist specialized in digital media, Director of the National Geographic magazine in Spain and Vice-President of the Institute of North American Studies Foundation.
Your interest in digital media goes back a long way.
Yes. I have been fascinated by the internet since the nineties because of the communication possibilities it offers. I was part of the first group of journalists to dedicate themselves to digital journalism. In fact, this interest is what led me to live in the United States for professional reasons on two occasions.
In the summer of 2000, at the height of the dot-com boom, I had the opportunity to go to Miami as editor-in-chief of a Spanish website called Baquia.com. The website offered information about the internet sector and opened different offices in America. The position in Miami allowed me to be close to both the technology boom and the Hispanic market.
The experience lasted a year because, like many of the dot-coms of the moment, the company did not go too well.
You returned to Barcelona, worked in different groups, including Godó and Prisa, kept ties with the United Sates on both a professional and personal level, and went back after 15 years.
Seeing how the press was becoming integrated into the digital world fascinated me. I followed how The New York Times went about this process very closely. We did not think twice when I was offered the chance to go to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas in Austin as a Visiting Scholar and “journalist in residence”. That position allowed me to enjoy all the university’s services to do the research project that I had been wanting to for so long: studying and analyzing the digitalization process of The New York Times.
My stay finished after one year when I published the book The Reinvention of The New York Times (2017)
Can you give us your two cents on the process?
Yes. It is interesting because they kept changing the model until they found a successful formula. An overview of the process would be that The New York Times website appeared in January 1996 and worked separately from the printed newspaper. That implied two newsrooms, on paper and online, and they were not even located in the same building. They worked as two independent companies.
They experimented with different formulas, firstly with the aim of reaching a wide audience and high level of publicity, and then the first paid experiment which did not work very well.
Over time, the web newsroom moved to the same building as the written press on 8th Avenue and both newsrooms started to become integrated. The commitment to producing high quality journalism and charging for it, instead of living off advertising, meant that digital subscriptions launched in 2011 and were a huge success.
Understanding this transformation, how it affected the different departments, was something I had been looking at and analyzing from the outside for years, but I wanted to understand it much more deeply to see how the sector could apply it. I have held many meetings and lectures with editors and journalists to talk about how this model has been applied since the book was published. One lecture I have often been asked to give is about what lessons we can learn from the transformation of The New York Times for other media.
I understand that you have gained a lot from this experience.
My stay in Austin is one of the best things to happen in my life, both for me and my family. In fact, I always recommend the experience of living abroad for a period to my friends. You learn a lot, it really opens your mind, and it helps you see things at home from a different perspective. You meet people from different cultures. It is a source of growth.
What attracts you to the United States?
It is a very competitive society but which offers many opportunities for growth and accomplishment. It does not give you anything for free, but it has a great commitment to entrepreneurship, to personal initiatives, and to the individual who believes in a subject and who believes in what that person can do.
It is a lot more of a diverse country than we are used to here, and that causes conflict. The United States is made up of people from all over the world and, although there are problems — which is what most people talk about — it has a large capacity for integration.
Sometimes when you compare it to Europe, I think that American society is a young society, a society that is not so… stuck in its way, that does not have thousands of years of historical baggage like we do in Europe. And that lets them look at many things in a more inventive way, more open to possibilities. Less cynical, I dare say.
There are also many contradictions and other things that I find it very hard to understand, like the whole issue of guns. You see where it comes from, but it is very disconcerting.
From a professional point of view, I am attracted by the type of journalism practiced there. It is very based around facts and analysis, with a very powerful storytelling capacity.
You have had links with digital journalism since its outset and done this research about the transformation of The New York Times. Do you think the way of doing journalism has changed? Do you think that immediacy has affected the effect of the news?
The way of doing journalism has changed to a huge degree with the Internet. The way of accessing information has changed, the ways of accessing sources have changed, and the way that people give information has changed. Nowadays, several people skip the media and communicate directly with the public. For example, there are football players who say what they want to say on social networks and hardly ever do interviews anymore. Many things have changed. The immediacy has changed, the possibilities of telling stories with multimedia. The internet is a platform combining text, photographs, videos, graphics, interactive graphics, maps and other elements. No other media has had this diversity. It is an all-in-one, and more besides. It also has the possibility of reaching the whole world without barriers. This enormous diversity of communication of all kinds opens up many possibilities and lowers the barriers of any medium. It is a little contradictory, but there has never been as much information as there is now but, at the same time, there has never been such a major issue of misinformation. That is one of the challenges that media is facing nowadays: gaining people’s confidence. I think it is starting a comeback. Subscriptions are becoming the mainstay of the business and you have to build up that confidence with quality journalism.