Álex Sàlmon: “No threat has ever made me change a front page”

Inspiring people

05/07/2016

Álex Sàlmon (Barcelona, 1962) is the director of the El Mundo newspaper’s Catalonia edition. Calm, elegant and polite, he invited us into his office on Barcelona's Passeig de Gràcia. Books, newspapers, magazines, papers: an organized disorder. The perfect setting to talk about journalism.

 

When did you decide to become a journalist?
The profession picked me. I wanted to be a psychologist. At 12 I already played records to hear myself speak, and toward the end of high school, I met a person who worked at Radio Miramar, which is where I got my start.

 

What are essential qualities for a journalist?
You have to be nosy to be a good reporter. Ask a lot of questions. And most importantly, you can't be embarrassed about asking questions, because questions are always intelligent, unlike the answers, which sometimes aren't. Being somewhat cultivated is also important. I think one of the main problems with journalists today is that they don’t have a background in the humanities. They aren't cultivated people. They haven't read everything. The more cultivated you are, the more intelligent and contextualized your questions will be.

 

Speaking of reading everything, how many books do you read in a month?
From cover to cover, not that many. I spent my entire adolescence reading books from beginning to end. Out of obligation. When I began working in cultural journalism, I realized that books could be abandoned. That it was alright. For example, I started reading One Hundred Years of Solitude five times, but it didn’t grab me until the sixth time, and I've re-read since then.

 

You mentioned being nosy. Have you always been inquisitive?
I've always been nosy, curious and argumentative. My father called me a pa contraria [contrarian], because I always liked challenging people. I loved it then, and I love it now. I think it's essential that journalists don't buy the first thing out of someone’s mouth. You have to ask questions relentlessly to see if they're keeping something from you or if someone is hiding something shameful they don't want revealed.

 

As director of El Mundo in Catalonia, what would you emphasize about the paper? What do you focus on the most?
El Mundo is a newspaper with staunch supporters. Real pro-El Mundo people. Readers who love what we do and how we do it. We demystify public figures. Our readers are also somewhat contrarian. Historically, investigative journalism has been our strong suit.

 

Where do you think journalism is headed?
This is a really tough moment for the profession's elders and a great moment for those just starting out. Especially because of the tools. But no matter what, a democratic society will always need people who explain the truth of what is happening in that society.

 

The truth or an interpretation of the truth...
Precisely, because there is never just one truth.

 

However, there is such a thing as immediacy and not paying for news...
Yes, these are currently the two enemies of our profession, and we deal with them every day. We're getting people accustomed to consuming information for free and that isn't good for our industry.

 

What would you suggest?
I'm a big supporter of pay walls. People who want to consume quality information should pay for it.

 

But it will be difficult for people to take that step...
Ultimately, people are intelligent and know where to go to find good, reliable information. What we have lost is the routine of buying a newspaper every day, and bringing that back would be difficult.

 

How does traditional journalism fit into our new digital era?
The print journalist no longer exists. Their routines have disappeared, mainly because online information is updated constantly. The toil of modern-day journalists never stops. It was different before.

 

Do you think paper will disappear?
Never. A newspaper's print edition enjoys greater prestige than its online counterpart. An interview in the print edition offers more than the digital version. The events are online, but the consequences and analysis of those events is on paper.

 

Let's switch subjects. Do you have any role models?
All those journalists like García Márquez, Truman Capote or Tom Wolfe, when he wrote for Rolling Stone, who did long-form journalism. Who published really thorough, informative and corroborated texts. And Pedro J. Ramírez, of course. I worked with him for 26 years, and he is my biggest role model. Not only in terms of getting information, but how he wrote and structured it.

 

Is becoming a writer the natural evolution of a journalist?
Yes, but they represent two different techniques. Journalism forces you to be a frugal wordsmith, whereas the opposite is true of a writer. A journalist can be a good writer, but I'm not sure if a writer can be a good journalist, particularly where compiling and synthesizing information is concerned.

 

At one point, you remarked how a good journalist is someone who likes to complicate his or her life. What has been the most complicated moment in your career?
So many! As a journalist, they were quite straightforward. As the director, they got more complicated. There’s the pressure and the threatening phone calls at 10 pm warning me of the consequences of publishing or not publishing certain information. Especially if it's going on the front page. Business people and politicians are afraid of making the front page.

 

Has a phone call ever made you change the front page?
Never. The threat normally goes like this: “I'm going to call Pedro J.” And my answer has always been the same: “I'll give you his number.”

 

Between one edition and the next, I imagine you have some time for yourself. What do you like to do in your free time?
Ana María Matute always said, “Stare at my big toe.” I don't go that far, but almost. I read, read, read. Spend time with friends, enjoy good food and wine. Now I've gotten hooked on shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.

 

What advice would you give a student who isn't sure whether to study journalism or not?
If they want to make money, this isn’t the career for them. But if they want to have fun and get to know a lot of people they'd never meet working in that job that makes them lots of money, then they should go into journalism.

 

As a university professor, what is your impression of the next generation of journalists?
I see positives and negatives. A positive: they're complete sponges. A negative: they don't have a broad knowledge base, and they don't read. A journalist who lacks a broad knowledge base is a bad journalist.

 

And to wrap things up: is a journalist born or made?
A bit of both. I'd say 70% effort and 30% innate. One can't forget craft. Without it, you don't get anywhere.

 

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A BRIEF TASTE

 

Do you like wine?
Wine is one of my passions.

 

What is the best moment to enjoy a glass of wine?
Any moment, except first thing in the morning and right before bed. So between 10 am and midnight, any time you want.

 

A song to accompany a good wine.
Any Leonard Cohen song.

 

A corner to get lost in?
Barcelona's Gothic Quarter. The cloisters of the cathedral.

 

If you could be reincarnated, who or what would you be?
I'd start over as myself.

 

What do you do in your free time?
Read and watch TV shows.

 

A flaw and a virtue.
Flaw: my obsession with disorganized order. Virtue: my obsession with organized disorder.

 

What did you want to be when you were small?
Small.

 

And when you're older?
Small.

Categorías: Inspiring people