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Interview with Mauro Piccoli: How journalism has changed in Italy

March 27, 2011

As we walk into a small room on the fifth floor of one of the newsrooms of La Repubblica, in Via Cristoforo Colombo, Rome, I notice that Mauro Piccoli doesn’t look like a retired man. Yes, his hair is gray and his face lined with experience. But there is a shiny sparkle in his eyes, which is still young and lively. I feel at my ease with him, even when we sit opposite each other in a bare, grayish room. A table is in between us. A few meters away, a small, unused desk hosts an aged computer. The screen is off.

As I turn on my recorder, Piccoli coughs slightly and I plunge into our conversation about the changes of journalism. Piccoli nods confidently as I talk about the Internet and I touch on some of the variations and developments of the print media. He waits for me to finish, then he takes control of the conversation and he finally puts some order into my confused thoughts.

According to Piccoli, in the last forty years, journalism has changed in two major ways: technically and professionally. Even though he thinks that the comprehensive essence of this profession has not varied in time – except during the so-called ventennio fascista, while Mussolini was in power – Piccoli refuses any claim that journalism is dying. “We will keep needing journalists more than ever in a world in which powers tend to be unrestrained and uncontrollable,” he states without a doubt.

He recounts that forty years ago, when he started working for Il Tempo, in January 1971, the material creation of a newspaper was unbelievably more complicated than today. News articles were printed at the end of the day through a linotype machine that “should have been put in a bell jar for future generations to see.” Journalists had to be more flexible too.

Nothing like what I experienced during my internship at Il Manifesto existed. Which is kind of scary to believe. No computers, no electronic paging of the newspaper, no sure length of a news piece. “We used to write off the cuff,” Piccoli explains with a shrug of his shoulders. “Then, the editor who went to the print bureau did the best he could with the printer. He decided where to place a photograph and how big the title should be. Everything was improvised.”

After the linotype, the newspaper layout was manually managed by the editor inside the newsroom, on an inclined “typographical desk.” But everything changed again with the introduction of computers and the spread of electronic graphics. “Today everything arrives in that box over there” Piccoli says with a smile, distractedly pointing at the abandoned computer on the other side of the room.

And this is the kind of desk journalism I know, where the pieces of information directly arrive on a screen from the various news agencies and websites from all over the world. The kind of journalism that needs a simple click to access the sources, a simple click to design the pages of the newspaper, a simple click to adjust the length of an article.“Everything is faster and easier,” Piccoli says confirming my thoughts, “it’s much more industrialized.”

The advent of the Internet revolutionized journalism as Piccoli luckily knew it when he started working as a reporter at Il Tempo. In his book, Morte e Resurrezione dei Giornali, Enrico Pedemonte recalls that when the first computers began to appear in newsrooms, in the 1980s, and the old typewriters Olivetti Lettera 32 began to disappear, this change was seen “as a sign of modernization, not as a threat to the workplace.”

During our little talk, Piccoli connects the advent of computers, this so-called “modernization,” to another change, discussed by Pedemonte as well in his book. Computers gave journalists a “new centrality.”

Forty years ago – Piccoli explains – after writing an article, the journalist gave it to proof-readers, then to the typographer who had to retype it on the actual page of the newspaper. In this long process, the article could be “spoiled.” Today, instead, as I experienced during my internship, journalists directly type their articles on the electronic copy of the newspaper, they compose their own titles, they decide what to cut and what to add, because an automatic word-count warns them how long their piece is and how many extra words need to be taken away. “There is a greater and better control on the final product,” Piccoli says. This gave new centrality and more power to single journalists in terms of what they write and how they write.

In fact, Piccoli continues, also news writing changed with the advent of computers. “Metaphors are more widely used,” he says, “and writing is more flowery, more fanciful.” In his book, Pedemonte confirms this theory. He explains that until the 1980s, when linotype printing was still in use, news articles had a “pyramid structure,” meaning that there was a “hierarchical sequence of information.” Most important facts first, minor details at the end.

This way, when the typographer had to cut a piece because too long, he could materially eliminate the last few lines instead of random words within the text itself. Computers have changed this. Since now editing an article is much easier, and journalists themselves can do it, as Piccoli said, writing has changed. News is developed following a “story plot,” Pedemonte writes, “with an often circular structure.” Piccoli doesn’t mention this, but according to Pedemonte, La Repubblica introduced this type of writing. And because of its success within the public, all other Italian newspapers adopted it.

While talking about the changes caused by the introduction of computers, Piccoli says that the amount of work journalists have surely increased. Before computers took over typewriters and the Internet invaded newsrooms, there were less desk journalists, also called “stone asses” in Italian journalese. “This segment of the category widened and it will even more in the future,” he predicts. Why? Because the “magic box” – read: computers, not televisions – delivers news directly to the journalist sitting at his desk, not doing research on the field. This kind of cheap journalism is perfect for those daily newspapers that are in economic difficulties, Piccoli says.

Continuing his informative lesson, Piccoli begins talking about the professional changes of journalism. The advent of computers and of the Internet, in fact, has not just changed journalism in a technical, or technological way. It’s not just a matter of how newspapers are designed and printed. It’s also a matter of how news is gathered and explained.

As I said, following Piccoli’s talk and Pedemonte’s analysis, more and more journalists get their information from the huge multitude of sources on the web. Not only news agencies and other newspapers, but also blogs, photographs, videos, amateur websites, public forums and social networks. Everything is there, ready to be used. But as journalists have access to all this information, so do common citizens who nowadays produce, share and comment on what other people write and produce.

“The smaller the world becomes, the faster the communication,” Piccoli affirms. Therefore, “journalists prepare themselves to be not only producers of news, but filters and selectors of news.” The role of journalists becomes more important, more valuable, in a world where anybody can write his opinion and access the online media market with a snap of his fingers. In the overwhelming 24-hour news cycle, journalists become “trustworthy advisors, who must give their seal of approval, by guaranteeing the truthfulness of a certain information on the one hand, by giving their interpretation on the other.”

This new type of journalism, as we could call it, a journalism that explains the news and elaborates on it, is not the one we find in today’s Italian newspapers. This is the real crisis of journalism, Piccoli states. In today’s scenario, where there is a continuous stream of news, a huge amount of sources and always more portable computers, “what you must know, you know immediately.” The result is that today’s Italian newspapers are already “old” when they land at the newsstands.

When reading a daily, Piccoli has my own same thought: “I heard about this 24 hours ago!” What’s the point of writing six columns about what Berlusconi has said hours earlier? “Newspapers must explain the news and connect them with other news so as to give a sense, a meaning,” because “men are bizarre insects who try to create webs and explain what’s around them. There’s nothing to explain, probably, everything is chaotic and accidental. But, in their own small way, daily newspapers should try to do this: take the news, explain it and explain what’s behind it,” Piccoli says letting himself go to a moment of rare, ethereal philosophy.

Italian newspapers haven’t yet understood where journalism is going, where the new technologies are leading its path. A clear example of the backwardness of Italian print media is to be found in their underestimation of the potential of the web. Very often, except for some more of less virtuous exception such as La Repubblica and Il Fatto Quotidiano, newspaper websites are a mere copy of their paper correspondents.

In his book, L’ultima Copia del New York Times: il Futuro dei Giornali di Carta, Vittorio Sabadin says that “many newspapers keep considering their websites as an electronic copy of their paper editions, viewing them as a dangerous competitor.”

Piccoli confirms this and admits that even in La Repubblica, whose website is the most popular in Italy, has a scoop, it doesn’t publish it immediately on its website, but prefers waiting to publish it in print. “We all think that print is still king,” Piccoli says. But in the States, the opposite is true. Piccoli cites the New York Times as one of those newspapers who have already “inverted the value given to the web.”

Sooner or later, this process will take place in Italy as well. So far, only Il Fatto Quotidiano, the newborn paper founded in 2009, seems to have invested enough energies and resources on its website. And, in fact, ilfattoquotidiano.it is one of the most popular news websites in Italy.

Simone Cosimi, the prototype of the new multimedial Italian journalist whom I interviewed, would heat up by hearing Piccoli talk about the web. However, even though a member of the “old school,” Piccoli welcomes the new challenges to print media and the developments of citizen journalism. His point of view, of course, is not as critical as that of Simone or as catastrophic as that of his friend Valentina.

After all, Piccoli has done what he could, in a much easier scenario for journalists than that of today. Piccoli is positive about the future of journalism. He admits that there is a crisis of print media, but this crisis is only technical. “There will always be the need of good news writing,” he predicts, “the technical devices on which the audience reads the news will change. But journalism will not disappear because, today, young people do not read newspapers.” I wish I could be as sure as he is.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Linnea permalink
    April 15, 2011 13:18

    It is interesting to me, as more and more people get their news from external media, most predominantly the internet. I have to admit that I am, unwillingly in that category. Living out of country, I read news from my home country online. However, I will never find that as pleasing as looking at the actual paper, seeing the layout, reading the ingresses and flipping through the pages and getting more information by just taking in the visual concepts as well.
    For that reason I am very pleased that there are applications for both the Samsung Galaxy tab and the Ipad that allows the owner to download pdf formats of newspapers from all around the world. The other day my boyfriend downloaded an issue of the Swedish morning paper DN, and it was the first time I was truly intrigued to read the whole paper, and take in every article. When reading online it is easier to glance over sections and headlines have to truly stand out to catch my eye.
    In the end, I know that I take in more information from actually reading a paper, or at last something that has the same format. So for that reason, I don’t think that journalism in its traditional sense will completely die out with this generation. If there are more people like me out there, that enjoy the set up of an actual paper, the paper might just have to change into a digital format an allow people to download issues to their mobile devices.
    To add on, many universities around the US still have college papers that come out, in the shape of a news paper. Even here in Hays, “the Leader” comes out once a week, and I don’t think students would put so much work into a paper if they did not think that was the best way to get information out to the student body. My point being that if they assumed the internet to be the best source, they could just create a blog and constantly update it. However, many younger students are lazy and with the paper being available at all ends on campus, students are likely to pick up a copy and at least glance over the headlines when waiting for class, or a friend. So personally, I don’t thin journalism will die out, it will just force people to find new was of getting the news out to people.
    Time to run to class! Thanks for some excellent articles!
    Linnea

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