JFF #009: Independent public interest journalism and funding in Italy

[Cross-posted from the Journalism Funders Forum website, where you can sign up for this newsletter. Twitter version here.]

Italy’s media landscape and philanthropy networks

On the face of it, looking at a newsstand, it’s easy to conclude that Italy’s media are doing OK. There are papers literally everywhere, in most cities and regions, covering even individual mountain valleys. Robust local news in some ways appears to be a fixture of Italian life in a way that’s collapsing in many other countries.
Philanthropy too seems widespread – with bank foundations, family foundations and community foundations across the country, with a strong local connection, the potential seems immense. Individual giving is also high – according to 2016 data, Italians give the equivalent of 0.30% of GDP to NGOs, the same as the Netherlands, and nearly double Germany’s rate.
The country seems to have a particular love affair with journalism festivals. From food journalism to cultural journalismenvironmental journalism to narrative journalism, there’s a slew of events attesting to the idea that celebrating journalism is a key marker of a civilised society. Primus inter pares has to be Perugia’s annual International Journalism Festival, which has become an essential stop on the global carousel of journalism events.
Beyond panels, passeggiata and palazzi?
Behind the mask, however, things are not so rosy. Print circulations are in an inexorable decline, and just 9% of news consumers pay for news online – but, as in many places, the legacy media are felt to be slow to respond. La Stampa, for example, announced its “Digital First”strategy just last week. While some experimentation and innovation funding has gone into the sector, notably from Google, this has not yet translated into a stronger R&D culture.
According to the 2019 Reuters Digital News Report, trust in journalism is “particularly low” at 40%, a situation it ascribes to the “partisan nature of Italian journalism and to the strong influence of political and business interests on news organisations”. The independence of public service broadcaster RAI, as the DNR notes, is compromised by the system of political appointments in management and editorial.
TV – a highly concentrated sector – remains overwhelmingly the key source for news for 4 in 5 Italians. The online news market (used by 3 in 4 Italians) is dominated by major legacy news brands (newspapers and the press agency) and the TV companies. In even more stark figures, a 2016 Pew-style survey conducted by Urbino University’s Osservatorio News Italia suggested that only 5% of Italian news consumers trusted the legacy media, and that 62% trusted blogs and search engines more than established journalists (48%).
Sergio Splendore’s analysis in the 2016 Worlds of Journalism study was that Italian journalists’ self-image was quite contradictory. They espoused high ethical standards, but many found various dubious or unethical practices acceptable; they felt that government officials, politicians and business people had little influence over their content, but at the same time, 50-60% felt that they had little autonomy in what they were producing.
With this backdrop, attacks on the media, as documented by observatory Ossigeno, especially from Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and from far-right Lega’s Matteo Salvini and his supporters, have struck a chord. This has given a focus to declining trust, fuelling polarisation and discrimination, and causing increasing numbers of voters to treat Grillo and Salvini as more trustworthy sources of information. Set the economic and political threats alongside other media freedom threats (attacks from the far-right or threats from the mafia for investigating organised crime), the picture for established journalism looks much more precarious.
A key domestic voice alongside Ossigeno is freedom of expression and media pluralism advocacy group Articolo 21 (est 2002), which runs an information portal bringing together representatives from the field of communications, journalism, law, culture and economy.
In 2015, a set of seven prominent Italian journalists were asked by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics to diagnose what was going wrong with trust in journalism, and newspapers in particular. Their responses make stark and sobering reading. A news sector too focused on the political class, with no independent ownership, unable to separate fact from opinion, with fact-checking absent, self-reflection rare, and questioning or watchdogging of those in power rarer still.
Splendore reinforces this last point in another paper on the declining watchdog role of local journalism, where journalists merely “disseminate the perspectives of their sources”. This is an added risk according to Carola Frediani, co-founder of digital journalism outlet Effecinque and board member of new independent unit Facta, saying that “readers, especially those that follow a certain theme, now tend to rely much more on individual journalists as opposed to the newspaper”.

Who is doing noteworthy public interest journalism?

We heard about a few bright spots – but while we saw many references to investigative journalism, both inside the mainstream papers and in independent settings, there was little if any discussion about “public interest journalism” – just an overall expectation that journalism should be working in the public interest.
Many mentioned independent commercial news site Fanpage as a success story, in terms of the nature of its coverage and of its reach into demographics other news organisations fail to reach (i.e. the young).
Italy’s leading independent investigative organisation, IRPI, is steadily building a bigger profile, including a recent foray into Serial-style podcast storytelling (an area of growth in Italy, as in many places).
Corriere della Sera collaboration with the LSE tried to establish new norms for reporting on migration without increasing polarisation – alongside initiatives like Open Migration, the long-standing Carta di Roma standards, and even micro-publications like The Black Post.
A new FOI law came into force in 2016, which provides a platform for investigative, data and other journalists (like hybrid newsrooms Cittadini ReattiviOpenPolis and OnData), alongside civil society groups like Diritto di SapereCILD and Good Lobby Italy.
While publishing appears quite vibrant, many magazines seem to address already well-served audiences. A few smaller independent newsrooms trying to bridge on topics of common interest are finding support and reader revenue, including La Voce, which covers economics, welfare and other social issues, from a more citizen-focused perspective.
Altreconomia, another economics-focused newsroom, operates as a co-operative, with 650 members. Co-founder of the International Journalism Festival, Arianna Ciccone, is also heavily involved in Valigia Blu, a reader-supported independent publication. Others trying more reader-focused approaches include digital publication Slow News, and local print quarterly L’Ora del Pellice.
Fumetti, or cartoons/graphic novels, are immensely popular, and graphic journalism is a popular genre, especially through figures like Zerocalcare.

Who is funding public interest journalism?

As far as funding goes, while there are ad hoc cases of individual journalists and journalism initiatives receiving funding, and often from international funders, there is no major Italian funder or forum strategically supporting or advancing independent public interest journalism.
Prominent foundations like CariploCompagnia di San PaoloCRTBanca del Monte di Lucca and Con Il Sud work on issues adjacent to or overlapping with aspects of journalism, including arts, heritage and culture. Others, like Charlemagne (whose Stefania Mancini recently gave an interview on strategic challenges facing the sector), are also known to have supported some journalism projects.
Most importantly, Assifero, under the leadership of Carola Carazzone, has been spearheading discussion and debate among its 100+ family, corporate and community foundation members about key shifts of approach. This includes moving from a largely assistance-based model to a more strategic and rights-focused form of philanthropy, and from project funding to core, multi-year funding. However, this has not yet included independent, public interest journalism. Its counterpart representing the 86 foundations of banking origin, ACRI, has a strong interest in innovation, for example, although again it has not yet moved into the space of supporting experimentation and innovation in journalism. Other initiatives like the Lang Philanthropy Day may also be venues to discuss or explore these issues, alongside networks of high net worth individuals.
A wildcard might be the newly-announced (and huge) innovation fund for Italy, given the mission-driven innovation track record of its president Francesca Bria. One person we spoke to suggested Nesta Italy as a home for a pilot innovation fund, as its UK counterpart has been.

What can interested funders do?

Our interviewees suggested three concrete next steps:

  • Scoping/mapping of the state of and potential for independent and public interest journalism in Italy;
  • Convenings within or between ACRI, Assifero and other networks;
  • Considering existing collaborative foundation models like Italy’s Never Alone or the Europe-wide Civitates.

What else we’re reading this month

1. Civitates launched a new round of requests for proposals for core grants to strengthen public interest journalism organisations across Europe. Applications open until 30 April 2020.

2. Nick Perks asks, for the Funding Utopia blog series, “what if all grants were unrestricted?”

3. Find out how the Bureau of Investigative Journalism directly engages people who could or should use its journalism.

Coming up …
In our upcoming editions, we’ll be taking a closer look at the media philanthropy landscape in Central and Eastern Europe, among other locations. Any tips, suggestions on who we should talk to and which initiatives to look into?  Email us.

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