By Sarah White
MADRID (Reuters) - Journalist Pedro J. Ramirez's career has had as many twists and turns as Spain's modern politics.
Once the young editor of a pro-civil rights newspaper after the end of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s, he went on to found the conservative El Mundo daily that became a mouthpiece for the cozy political elite that long ruled Spain in its wake.
Now he is launching El Espanol, one of a crop of new media start-ups which, like a new young generation of Spanish politicians, challenge an establishment they say has become ridden with corruption and inefficiency.
"We want to influence politics through society, so that people don't think that corruption is just something that happens naturally," Ramirez, 63, said from offices housing 72 reporters focusing on investigative journalism.
Spain's harshest economic crisis since General Francisco Franco's rule ended in 1975 has laid the ground for what some believe will be a lasting shift in society that could already be reflected in the outcome of a general election to be held on Dec. 20.
The slump and a rise in poverty have shone a harsh light on longstanding cronyism in business and political circles and the inadequacies of a slow justice system.
At the same time, corruption scandals eroded faith in both the ruling center-right People's Party (PP) and the opposition Socialists which for years have dominated government, helping the rise of new parties from the market-friendly Ciudadanos to the leftist Podemos.
While the PP should in theory be expected to benefit from the first shoots of economic recovery, the election will for the first time be a four-horse race and is likely to result in alliances.
Surveys show Spain's media establishment suffered a similar loss in trust during the crisis amid resurging concerns that the national public broadcaster is too politicized and that indebted newspapers groups are overly influenced by big advertisers, including the government.
"There's a second transition happening in politics, on the social front, in the economy -- and the media has to be there too," said Braulio Calleja, co-founder of bez.es, a website aiming to produce six deeply-reported current affairs stories a day on themes such as corruption or constitutional reform.
But sites such as El Espanol or bez.es are not just trying to push their credentials for independent journalism. Some are explicitly campaigning for the types of deep-rooted reforms advocated by the new parties gaining ground.
Ramirez even has a manifesto of sorts which includes moving towards a more proportional German-style voting system, giving judges greater independence, and even changing the Spanish working day, which is longer than in many other countries but often involves a long lunch break and is less productive.
The veteran editor is in many ways a questionable exponent of this new trend in Spain, not least because he has been so deeply associated with the old guard in media and politics.
He is a divisive character, who has rattled leaders with his scoops but also courted controversy with El Mundo's digging into whether Basque separatist militants ETA were behind a deadly 2004 train bombing -- as upheld by some pro-PP conspiracy theorists even after judicial investigations sentenced members of an Islamist cell.
Even Ramirez admitted he had not really planned to be at the forefront of a media overhaul, having never imagined he would be sacked from El Mundo.
A friend of former PP premier Jose Maria Aznar, whom the paper had championed, Ramirez fell out with his PP allies in recent years and blames its leaders for his dismissal in 2014 after the paper dug into a party financing scandal - an assertion the PP rejected.
Now, with his fashion designer wife Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, he was spotted at the front row of an event in February at which Albert Rivera, Ciudadanos' 35-year-old leader, presented its economic policy.
The other question is whether the start-ups have the business model to survive in a tough sector where a quarter of all journalism jobs were wiped out during the crisis, and with many Spaniards still keeping a tight leash on spending.
The free online versions of El Mundo and El Pais, the two most distributed general news dailies, still get the highest number of monthly visitors, according to Comscore.
Spain's left-leaning eldiario.es website has managed to turn a profit since launching in 2012, editor Ignacio Escolar said, and a third of income now comes from its 12,000 subscribers, gained thanks to a focus on unmasking the corrupt.
El Espanol has more than 10,000 after launching in September, though Ramirez said 80 percent of its income will likely come from advertising in the site's first year. He hopes to get subscriptions up to 40,000 to 50,000 in the next two to three years.
The site also carried out a crowdfunding campaign, raising 3.6 million euros from small donations and adding to its start-up capital of 18 million euros in total.
"Some media outlets that are only three or four years old have managed to very quickly pick up a big chunk of the audience," said Ramon Salaverria, a journalism professor at the University of Navarra.
"In the past few years it's become clear that upstart political parties have won over voters from traditional parties, and it's happening in the media too."
(Additional reporting by Elisabeth O'Leary and Julien Toyer, Editing by Mark John and Angus MacSwan)