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The changing content of Italian journalism

April 12, 2011

We all know that journalism’s content has changed over time. It did so in Italy after the introduction of radio, a new threatening technology for the printed press that actually spurred a modernization of newspapers, in terms of content and format.[1] Italian print journalism began to diversify its content, use more photographs, widen sport sections, increase the number of newsroom journalists, give value to influent editorialists, and report on cinema, theatre and science.[2] Print journalism changed again after the introduction of TV. And this is the kind of the content change that most interests us, because 21st-century society in Italy is still witnessing the effects of this dramatic change.

The spread of television revolutionized journalism all over the world, not just in Italy. Journalist Enrico Pedemonte, in his book Morte e Resurrezione dei Giornali, interviews Pro Publica founder Paul Steiger in order to give an idea of how US newspapers responded to the introduction of the threatening new medium in the 1960s. According to Steiger, one of the first changes was the failure of evening newspapers due to a new phenomenon he sums up in two words: Walter Cronkite.[3] As many more people gathered in front of the TV at the dinner hour, newspaper evening editions disappeared. And so did hundreds of minor newspapers that could not survive what Pedemonte calls a “hecatomb.”[4]

However, print journalism in the United States actually came out of this period of crisis even stronger. “Quality journalism … was the answer the American publishing industry gave to the challenge of television,” Pedemonte quotes Steiger as saying.[5] Skimpy newspapers incremented the number of pages, added new sections about society and fashion, and widened the number of local, national and international correspondents in order to publish longer, more in-depth articles, that could compete with the new medium.[6] In short, Pedemonte says that “newspapers were able to survive the challenge of TV by targeting a high quality audience.”[7]

In Italy, newspapers changed in a totally different way after the spread of television. And, according to media experts and journalists such as Paolo Murialdi, Umberto Eco and Felice Froio, to name a few, this change that we still witness today was not a positive one. In short, if in the United States the advent of TV spurred newspaper quality, in Italy it diminished it. And this dramatic change occurred especially at the end of the 1980s when commercial television was introduced alongside public television and newspapers started to suffer a drop in advertising revenue and readers.[8] In Italy, the attempt by journalist Ricardo Franco Levi to target the daily newspaper L’Indipendente to a high quality audience was a total failure.[9] What worked in the United States, in Italy was a complete disaster.

Newspapers then responded to the challenge of television in a whole different way – in this process, news content changed dramatically. In his History of Italian Journalism, Murialdi talks about a phenomenon called “teledipendenza,” a television addiction that ruined newspaper content. Editors began “cheering up newspapers” by publishing articles whose content mainly “derived from news broadcasts and TV programs.”[10] Paolo Mieli, the La Stampa director who inaugurated this new successful type of journalism, then moved to Il Corriere della Sera in 1992, thus spreading his techniques to the rest of the Italian printed press.[11] Mieli hired new editorialists, he gave value to everything that TV broadcasted and he started publishing more columns about the most popular TV stars as a way to gain TV audience.[12] Murialdi writes that, to those who critiqued this new type of journalism, Mieli responded that he had to manage a newspaper that could directly compete with television.[13]

Italian philosopher, semiologist, university professor, and journalist Umberto Eco gave a conference about this subject on January 31, 1995, at the Italian Senate. In his book L’Informazione Spettacolo, Felice Froio gives a complete account of the conference and reports Eco’s critiques to newspapers. “The Italian press … is by now entirely dominated by television,” Eco said. [14] And, in fact, “television sets the agenda of the press.”[15] Froio comes back to this point over and over in his book. In Italian newspapers, there is a huge amount of pages and articles dealing with TV; its programs, characters and its more or less relevant subjects of interest. Eco accuses Italian newspapers to be the only ones in the world where TV news is reported on front pages.[16] Therefore, television stars, showgirls and anchormen populate newspapers with their problems, life stories, comments, even political views, which are not really of public interest.[17]

Ten years later, this has not changed at all. Italian newspapers still profusely talk about TV stars, anchormen and their programs. For example, on March 29, 2011, on page 17, in a section titled “Politics and Television,” La Repubblica deals with the government proposal of stopping political TV shows during elections and reports word by word what TV journalists such as Giovanni Floris, Bruno Vesta and Michele Santoro commented. The two following pages (18 and 19), instead, report on a woman who pretended to be an earthquake victim in L’Aquila on the talk show Forum, broadcasted on Canale 5, where people are paid to invent human-interest stories. Two whole pages where a total of three articles describe what happened during the show, draw a profile of the woman, and interview Rita Dalla Chiesa, the anchorwoman of Forum. Finally, on page 21, La Repubblica deals with the major international news story about the nuclear disaster in Japan and the fear of fusion fuel at Fukushima nuclear power plan reactors. Already in 1995, Eco accused Italian newspapers of ignoring international news events in order to “increase the space given to shows and television.”[18]

One of the most serious consequences of this “television addiction,” as Murialdi called it, and the changing news content, in fact, is a decreasing quality of journalism. This negative development of the Italian printed press is denounced by Murialdi, Pedemonte, Froio, Eco and Vittorio Sabadin, the author of the book L’Ultima Copia del New York Times. All these knowledgeable analysts report a homogenization of newspaper content over time. In short, they register a lack of analysis, of data and source checking, which is fundamental to produce high quality information. In Froio’s book, Giulio Anselmi, now President of Ansa, the most important Italian news agency, asserted that the subordination of the press to television caused a highly deplorable uniformity of newspaper content.[19] By obsessively following TV news, newspapers ceased investigating different, original stories. However, Anselmi reiterates that television audiences and newspaper readers are totally different; therefore, newspapers should differentiate their products. According to him, many journalists refuse to do so because they are afraid of being different.[20]

Mario Morcellini, President of the Communication Department in La Sapienza University of Rome, in an interview with Felice Froio, states that this low quality of journalism is one of the reasons whereby less people buy newspapers.[21] This is a crisis that adds up to another crisis – the financial problems of today’s Italian press. In fact, the situation has not much changed since the time Froio wrote his book in 2000. Ten years later, actually, it seems even worse. Because of the economic crisis, news organizations are cutting off expenditures, which also means cutting the number of foreign correspondents. Therefore, when an important event occurs, dozens of reporters are sent to the same place where, in a short period of time, they have to collect information and write their articles. Vittorio Sabadin writes that, nowadays, in such situations, it is common practice to gather all journalists in an “enclosed pen” where they all exchange information and press releases, with difficult access to external sources.[22] The result is a homogenized piece of information that fails to inform citizens of the complete reality.

Moreover, Sabadin denounces a “shortcoming of in-depth examination” due to the lack of time journalists have at their disposal to search and analyze social trends and changes.[23] This is the same type of concern Tana De Zulueta expressed during our personal interview. When De Zulueta left journalism to go into politics in 1996, she abandoned a very different profession from today’s. She had always worked for weeklies, having the chance “to research stories, do analysis.” Today, instead, journalists are called on “to produce a never-ending stream of copy” which De Zulueta thinks “has created opportunities but has limited the quality, too.” She wonders, “how much time and how many resources” can journalists, also required to be professional bloggers, put into the preparation of an article?[24] Not much, according to Sabadin, who thinks that some amateur websites and blogs do a better job in reporting social change than newspapers.[25]

Analysts, in fact, accuse the Italian press of being too far away from the people and their problems. In short, newspaper content does not reflect society and its changes. This problem is not a recent development of the printed press. Already in 1998, Italian philosopher and poet Guido Ceronetti wrote a letter directed to the “Dear Daily Newspapers,” where he argued that “if the public is drifting away from you, it is because you are not at all close to the public.”[26] Journalist Piero Ottone too accused newspapers of being disrespectful towards their readers.[27] Why? Because they reserve an exceptional amount of articles to every word, comment, nonsense said by a politician or TV star. Froio accuses newspapers of not giving enough space and importance to such subjects of public interest as healthcare, social providence, the education system and transportation.[28]

This disrespectfulness towards the readers is perfectly summarized by one word: politichese, which means the “self-referential language and mutual understanding, detached from the public but shared by politicians and journalists.”[29] In Froio’s book, La Sapienza professor Tullio De Mauro states that the majority of Italian newspapers doesn’t tell the facts, but “winks at a restricted number of presumably well-informed readers.”[30] In this way, it is almost impossible for “outsiders” to pick up an Italian newspaper and understand what is going on in the political arena. I like to compare this phenomenon to soap operas. Once you lose one episode, you fail to understand how the story develops in the following scenes.

During our personal interview, I complained about this with La Repubblica journalist Mauro Piccoli, who kindly tried to explain to me why this happens. He states beforehand that “Italian politics is a little bit like a soap opera.” However, when scandals concerning politicians are revealed, Piccoli says that journalists are forced to initiate the so-called “processi di piazza” – that is, open trials that “slaughter politicians without piety nor justice” before they are actually convicted. Newspapers then begin publishing parts of wiretaps and judicial minutes that are extremely confusing – especially if you don’t read the newspaper every day. Piccoli argues that this happens because the Italian judiciary is too slow. Therefore, if they were to wait a formal judgment, journalists would miss the scoop and the news “would lose interest.” Whether this mechanism convinces you or not, this is how things work in Italy.

However, by doing this, newspapers suffer the loss of even more readers, especially among young people, because they lose credibility. Concerning this, Pedemonte quotes, in his book, a research done by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism about public trust in the news which concludes: “Mistrust develops when the news represents a world that citizens are no longer able to recognize and when the news leaves them with the feeling that they are spectators witnessing a drama that not even the main actors are willing to understand.”[31] Young people, then, who are used to searching the web, where interactivity is the golden rule, don’t feel prompted to buy newspapers, since they are hard to understand and they fail to represent the Italian society young people are shaping. Pedemonte comes back to this point over and over in his book. “A newspaper,” he says, “is not only an instrument to publish the news. It’s an object that interprets the collective identity and contributes to regenerate it.”[32] When newspapers use the so-called politichese, when they publish too many articles concerning unclear and often insignificant matters of domestic politics, while sometimes giving no space to fundamental events happening abroad, they fail to meet the demands and needs of young readers, web-surfers and globalization children who are used to living in multicultural societies and, thus, are – or should be – interested in foreign politics as well.

A final change in newspaper content is represented by the rise of infotainment. Again, Froio dates this change back to the spread of television, the most popular medium in Italy according to the FIEG research, La Stampa in Italia 2007-2009. Froio says that “in order to adapt to television, newspaper titles are more and more sensationalized,” brief non-informative interviews resemble those conducted by TV journalists and more space is given to sensational news, TV, sport and political stars.[33] Froio cites as an example the death of Princess Diana. On September 1st, 1997, the Corriere della Sera published 8 pages about her, La Repubblica 13 pages, La Stampa 8.[34] Of course, she was a famous, relevant and influential person, but this doesn’t justify the fact that Italian newspapers kept talking about her months after her death. Murialdi too used her example to discuss about the rise of infotainment and sensationalism, “whose major impulse comes from television,” in Italian newspapers.[35]

Today’s news content is still often scandal-driven, also because, as Piccoli says, Italian politics does resemble soap operas, as we have a Prime Minister promoting underage prostitution or the then-governor of Lazio and his involvement with transsexuals, to name a few examples. Of course, the Italian press has the responsibility of reporting on all these scandals because they are in the public interest. According to Piccoli, this unbearable type of scandal-driven journalism will cease when Berlusconi will leave the political arena, because Italy is a country that “by tradition, privileges privacy … and forgives anything to men in power.”[36]

Can this low quality newspaper content survive the challenges set by the spread of the Internet and the new media? The financial crisis of the Italian press cannot be simply solved by sending home a couple of journalists, paying others extremely low salaries and cutting costs indiscriminately. Pedemonte notices that, today, other than dealing with domestic politics, the majority of articles are about gossip, fashion, sport, shows, books, and movies.[37] Although in the past, the industry thought that these pages helped sell newspapers, today, all the news concerning TV, fashion and food find much more space and in-depth analysis on the Internet, where specialized websites and blogs inform much better than a couple of articles in a daily paper.[38] In his interview with Pedemonte, Paul Steiger compared generalist newspapers to supermarkets,[39] where readers can get a bit of everything. Today, however, these news supermarkets are being replaced by “specialized shops” often spreading information for free.[40] According to Pedemonte, then, the industry must quickly find a way of replacing this structure and its content in order to protect the publishing of those in-depth analyses and reportages that are essential to democracy.[41]

Since the spread of television and, later, of the Internet and new media, Italian newspapers have changed their content and too often have offered low quality information that is hurting the whole industry. In order to get out of the financial crisis and acquire new readers, especially young ones, newspapers need to differentiate themselves from television and to invest in quality reporting. So far, the future doesn’t seem rosy for Italian journalism. The fact that Froio’s book is still so relevant and current after ten years says a lot about the current situation of the Italian

[1] Paolo Murialdi, Storia del Giornalismo Italiano, 6th ed, (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2006) 151.

[2] Murialdi 151-152.

[3] Enrico Pedemonte, Morte e Resurrezione dei Giornali: Chi Li Uccide, Chi Li Salverà (Milano: Garzanti, 2010) 23-24.

[4] Pedemonte 24.

[5] Pedemonte 24.

[6] Pedemonte 24-25.

[7] Pedemonte 25.

[8] Murialdi 296-297.

[9] Murialdi 297.

[10] Murialdi 297.

[11] Murialdi 297.

[12] Murialdi 297.

[13] Murialdi 297.

[14] Felice Froio, L’Informazione Spettacolo: Giornali e Giornalisti Oggi, (Roma: Editori Riuniti, 2000) 12.

[15] Froio 12.

[16] Froio 12.

[17] Froio 146.

[18] Froio 12.

[19] Froio 57.

[20] Froio 57.

[21] Froio 55.

[22] Vittorio Sabbadin, L’Ultima Copia del New York Times: il Futuro dei Giornali di carta, 2nd ed, (Roma: Donzelli, 2007) 19.

[23] Sabadin 120.

[24] Tana De Zulueta, personal interview, 10 Feb. 2011.

[25] Sabadin 120.

[26] Guido Ceronetti, “Il Lettore Incompreso,” La Stampa, 15 Jan. 1998.

[27] Froio 30.

[28] Froio 121.

[29] Monica Poletti and Kees Brants, “Between Partisanship and Cynicism: Italian Journalism in a State of Flux,” Journalism 2010, 11.3: 333.

[30] Froio 27.

[31] Pedemonte 126.

[32] Pedemonte 174.

[33] Froio 146.

[34] Froio 144.

[35] Froio 145.

[36] Mauro Piccoli, personal interview, 1 Oct. 2010.

[37] Pedemonte 186.

[38] Pedemonte 186.

[39] Pedemonte 25.

[40] Pedemonte 26.

[41] Pedemonte 186-187.

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