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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The last three years of the recession in Europe have taken their toll on the media as well. Across the continent, thousands of people have been fired, and those still working do so for low wages under precarious conditions. In Spain, many journalists are worried that cutbacks are happening at a time when the country needs reliable news and context about Spain's economic dire straits. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has more from Madrid.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: In the last three years, some 8,500 Spanish journalists have lost jobs. Dozens of newspapers have closed. Remaining publications are sharply cutting back as ads plummet. Independent newspapers and their owners are increasingly in debt to banks. Media analyst Pere Rusinol says this has led to a radical shift in media control.

PERE RUSINOL: After four years of crisis, all the big media - there is no exception - the main capital is from the banks in all the big media conglomerates.

POGGIOLI: Rusinol says the banks' influence on media coverage is widespread. This year alone, banks have repossessed 50,000 homes for unpaid mortgages. In fact, he says, practically all domestic news is related to banks, but newspapers focus mostly on color.

RUSINOL: These poor people. He's not able to pay. He has no place to sleep. But nobody explains. This is because this particular bank has forced that situation, and this particular bank is seeking, at the same time, money to the public finances because he's bankrupt.

POGGIOLI: Llucia Oliva, ombudsman in the region of Catalonia, says drastic budget cuts have all but ended investigative journalism, preventing in-depth analysis of government-imposed austerity measures and new allegations of political corruption.

LLUCIA OLIVA: And that's very bad for democracy and for the citizens who don't have all the information they would need to decide rationally when they go to vote.

POGGIOLI: With broadcasters increasingly seen as mouthpieces of the austerity-wielding government, viewership of both state-run and commercial TV is at an all-time low. And the media crisis has not spared Spain's legendary daily El Pais, the paper identified with the country's transition from Franco's dictatorship to democracy.

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POGGIOLI: The El Pais' newsroom has many empty desks. There aren't enough journalists to answer phones. Last month, 129 journalists - one-third of the total - were laid off, and remaining staff salaries were cut by 13 percent. Reporters reacted with a three-day strike and what has become a vocal daily protest.

GROUP: (Spanish spoken)

POGGIOLI: Outside the 6 P.M. editorial meeting, reporters hold copies of the paper upside down and count out the number of layoffs. Brigido Gomez is the secretary of El Pais' reporters union.

BRIGIDO GOMEZ: We continue to count. We continue to fight. We don't stop.

POGGIOLI: The layoffs came as a shock. El Pais has always been one of Europe's most profitable papers. But its parent company Prisa is now $4.5 billion in the red. El Pais management denies the layoffs are meant to offset Prisa's debts. Pedro Zuazua is a spokesman for El Pais.

PEDRO ZUAZUA: We are trying to do a newspaper for the contemporary times, thinking about another model of newspaper, to be the Spanish global newspaper.

POGGIOLI: Ramon Lobo, the paper's veteran and renowned war correspondent, is among the 129 laid off. Today, he says, El Pais is doing cheap journalism.

RAMON LOBO: Journalism that we cut-and-paste. We use the wires, but we don't go to see the things by our eyes. The papers become the same paper; the same photos, the same news, the same titles. So, we are losing the quality of information.

POGGIOLI: Lobo fears El Pais will soon join the ranks of discredited media. He points out that none of the mainstream papers have reported on the El Pais layoff. And the crisis of confidence in the media, he says, is further undermining civic society, already weakened by drastic cuts.

LOBO: We are losing freedom of speech, we are losing diversity of opinions, we are becoming more afraid. Don't speak. Don't lose your job. We are making a society of people afraid, and I think we must fight for a society of people that feel free.

POGGIOLI: Lobo and many other laid-off journalists are now turning to the Web to try to create alternative sources of news and analysis in an effort to fill the widening vacuum of independent information. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Madrid.

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MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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