Quality journalism will continue to be essential. How can quality journalism survive? The media veteran Eugenio Scalfari has some interesting thoughts on the newspapers of the future, and on their changing features, function and role.

Given that no-one else has found a recipe for enabling newspapers to respond to the financial difficulties they face as a result of falling advertising revenues, fewer subscribers and buyers, and increasing numbers of online readers, it would be strange if an 84-year-old Italian media veteran were to have a ready-made solution up his sleeve.
And indeed, Eugenio Scalfari does not claim to have one, but that has not prevented him from coming up with some interesting thoughts on how print newspapers can survive in a new and irritatingly electronic age, and on what their new features, function and role may become.

He has done so in the autumn of a life in which he was quick to name Silvio Berlusconi as his favourite adversary. His fierce criticism was entertaining for everyone except Berlusconi, but it was never sufficient to slow down the entrepreneur’s rapid rise, in his career as a cruise ship crooner, property developer, football club owner and television magnate. In the latter role, Berlusconi conveniently, and quite contrary to the spirit of Italian media law, transformed his group of television companies into a money-making machine that donated its profits to two good causes: Berlusconi’s private bank account and his political career.

Scalfari will always occupy an important place in Italian media history, and not only because he established and founded the daily newspaper La Repubblica in January 1976, which represented a completely new departure in the history of the Italian press: it was independent of any political party. At the time he was 51 years old, and he was already a well-known journalist: 13 years earlier he had founded the weekly magazine L’Espresso and surprised everyone, with the possible exception of himself, by turning it into a great success. He had also, in the finest Italian tradition, been a member of three political parties. He was thrown out of the fascist party as a teenager for writing antifascist articles.

That wasn’t quite the done thing during the war. In his 30s he helped found the Radical Party, which belongs somewhere in the middle of the Italian political spectrum. In 1963 he joined the Italian Socialist Party, which wasn’t a particularly big move to the left; its basic outlook contained elements that one would find on the right wing of the Norwegian Labour Party. He has had close links to the Italian literary set – at school he was a classmate of the budding writer Italo Calvino (1923-1985), and they remained friends for life. In spite of being the author of a number of books, 12 in total over the period 1969-2008, he is relatively unknown outside Italy. Had he been writing in English, there is little reason to doubt that he would have been world-famous.

News journalism has never been Scalfari’s big obsession – it’s not where his inclination lies, and besides, that’s not the tradition in his home country. The paper he founded was a left-leaning liberal publication, which recruited staff from the Italian left, and particularly from the intellectual circles with varying degrees of ties to Enrico Berlinguer’s communist party. Scalfari had noticed that the journalists of the party, and even its ideologues, including those working at the party newspaper L’Unità, were much more independent-minded and far more daring and unpredictable in their articles than communists in other countries.

This was in the days of Eurocommunism, when the quiet intellectual Berlinguer was coming into increasingly open conflict with the dogmatic views of the Kremlin. In 1984, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, he went so far as to describe Italiy’s NATO membership as a prerequisite for the Italian communists’ ability to maintain their unorthodox policy of criticising the Soviet Union. He even called NATO a shield for the communists in Italy, well aware of the connotations of that word: the Italian Christian democrats, the arch-rivals of the communists, used a shield with a cross on it as their symbol.

Incidentally, Berlinguer was proved right, albeit in a way that not even he could have imagined: when the Italian communist party dissolved after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Marxism began to lose legitimacy amongst Italian intellectuals, the ideological foundations of the Christian democrats also evaporated, leaving them on the scrap-heap of history as well. It is painful and difficult to lose one’s friends, but to lose one’s enemies can be utterly fatal.

Around the same time, parallel developments were taking place in a country with which Scalfari felt a close intellectual bond: Spain. In fact, Berlinguer’s family originally came from Spain, but the country differed from Italy in a way that was very important to him: the Spanish communist party was a dogmatic supporter of Moscow, and wanted nothing to do with the far more liberal tendencies of Eurocommunism.
In November 1975, Francisco Franco died after 36 years in power, and in March 1976, just two months after the first edition of La Repubblica went on sale in Italy, the new, politically independent newspaper El País (“the country”) appeared in Madrid. The founder and first editor-in-chief was the 32-year-old Juan Luis Cebrián.

He had grown up in a “newspaper family” – his father headed the falangist newspaper Arriba for many years – and as a 19-year-old he helped to found the cultural magazine Cuadernos para el Diálogo in 1963. It helped to start the dialogue that prepared the ground for a peaceful transition from Franco’s dictatorship to a functional, parliamentary democracy, so, in fact, that process had begun quietly ten years before Franco passed away. Naturally it did not provide any guarantee that the transition would be successful, but it sent a clear signal that some young intellectuals wanted it to succeed.

When Franco was reaching the end of his life, the circle around Cebrián began to put the wheels in motion for El País. They had reached so far in their preparations that it was merely a question of pressing the “on” button when they realised that Franco’s methods would be buried with him.

It did not take long for La Repubblica and El País to become by far the most interesting newspapers in their respective countries. In some ways they imitated the French paper Le Monde. But although they don’t exactly try to woo the masses – 99 percent of El País’s regular readers had a higher university degree, Cebrián told me in a conversation in Oslo in 1984 – both of the newcomers were far more accessible than the more elitist Le Monde, and they cannot be accused of shying away from popular culture.

They also broke with the traditional party links, which were particularly strong in Italy. They have proved to be both unpredictable and independent, and they have not been afraid of getting into disputes with the Catholic church. La Repubblica even got into one with the popular pope John Paul II, but with a recognition of, and great respect for, his enormous intellectual powers and his influence on developments in Eastern Europe.

And it is precisely their coverage of Eastern Europe in the 1980s that has guaranteed both newspapers a place in European press history. They detected and followed the changes taking place below the surface with far greater insight than the British and German press, for example, and it is worth looking more closely at two people in particular.

For more than 25 years, Pilar Bonet has been El País’s Moscow correspondent. This diminutive woman – she is around five foot three tall, and probably weighs about 45 kilos – followed the collapse of the Kremlin under its geriatric leadership, the economic and cultural stagnation, and the constant funerals: first Brezhnev, then Andropov and finally Chernenko.

In Moscow she had good contacts in the intellectual circles that were recruited as civil servants and advisers by the new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, when his turn came in 1985. She described the dissolution of the Soviet Union so well that she was given a grant by a research institute in Washington to write about its final phase. On returning to Moscow, she had a fairly dramatic confrontation with General Alexander Lebed, the man who helped Boris Yeltsin to be re-elected in 1996.

When she asked a question that he disliked at a press conference, Lebed accused her of being a spy. She immediately responded that she had no intention of putting up with that kind of accusation, and asked the general for an apology. It was not in his nature to give one, but on this occasion he did. Lebed was around six foot six tall, highly decorated and respected, and if any modern duel bore a resemblance to the battle of David and Goliath, this was surely it.

In addition to his height and huge chest – covered in medals – the general had a deep voice in the mould of Paul Robeson, so it should have been a walk-over – but in spite of that, he lost.

One of the clearest signs that a completely new tone, and entirely new administrative practices, could be expected in Moscow, was presented by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in April 1985, four weeks after Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the communist party. The paper’s Soviet Union correspondent, Rodolfo Brancoli, published an article about the economic reforms that Gorbachev would announce at the central committee meeting two months later, in June. These reforms were very wide-ranging, and represented a startling break with the previous 40 years, or even 70 years, of Soviet policy.

There was just one problem with articles making predictions about the communist block, but it was a fairly major one: they very rarely turned out to be right. But this particular one was so detailed that it was impossible to imagine that it could have been written without the author having seen some kind of background document. The fact that a non-communist journalist had been given access to material of that nature, could only mean a completely new information policy, whether the article proved to be true or not. Only the most trusted members of staff at the party newspaper Pravda were allowed to attend meetings where such matters were discussed and decided. In this case it was easy to check: all you had to do was keep a copy of Brancoli’s version and wait two months for the central committee meeting.

Everything turned out to be correct. Gorbachev launched his reform policy – perestroika – and turned his back on much of the fundamentalist ideological baggage that had provided the basis for Soviet policy from 1917 until 1985.

Brancoli was later reassigned to Washington, and towards the end of the 1980s he had an office a couple of floors above me in the National Press Building. I never asked him who his source was for the April 1985 article – it’s not the done thing – but it turned out that we had various acquaintances in common: resilient people who had hibernated through a rather severe political winter night since my time in Moscow around 1970.

These two journalists, Pilar Bonet and Rodolfo Brancoli, are in fact merely representative of the high standards maintained by the two newspapers since 1976. I could easily mention other names, but they happen to be two journalists whose articles I have read closely over a number of years, with a certain background knowledge both of them as people and of the fields they cover.

It is also worth mentioning that there are few European newspapers that can match El País’s coverage of the situation in Latin America. Perhaps that is hardly surprising, as there are obligations that come with being a past colonial power and modern cultural superpower, but on the other hand it is 110 ten years since the final remains of the Spanish colonial empire in the western hemisphere were gobbled up by the US. (La Repubblica’s achievements in Somalia and Ethiopia cannot be compared with El País’s reports on Latin America – El País is in a class of its own, and Spanish journalism is not guilty of anything like the same degree of verbosity that makes it a time-consuming hobby to read Italian newspapers.)

Of course no-one familiar with the current situation in the international newspaper industry would imagine that La Repubblica and El País are fortunate enough to be enjoying a trouble-free existence as they both enter their 34th year in business. Both the 84-year-old Scalfari and Cebrián, who is twenty years his junior, have left the publications they founded, although Scalfari continued to write a weekly opinion piece until as recently as 2007. By that time he had strongly censured former prime minister Bettino Craxi – a member of his own party, and a longstanding socialist prime minister, who moved to a pleasant exile from corruption charges in Tunis when his government collapsed – as well as the longstanding Christian democrat leader Giulio Andreotti and, of course, the current prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. The latter had been an adversary long before he entered politics, as there was plenty to oppose as Berlusconi started building up his formidable combination of a television empire and money-making machine. Scalfari was also a frequent critic of the Catholic church – a criticism that he brought to a close with his autobiography last year, entitled “The man who did not believe in God”.

For Scalfari, who continues to have an office at La Repubblica and whose spirit still guides the newsroom that he built up and turned into the most interesting one in Italy, it is still the autonomy of the journalist that matters. He therefore also opposes rules and regulations; he believes that journalism is a career that cannot be pursued without a sense of journalistic responsibility. And no sets of rules can replace that. This sense of responsibility should also mean that journalists do not intrude on people’s private lives.

For those of us who work at La Repubblica or El País that is a matter of course,” said Scalfari in an interview with El País on the 15th of February this year. But he is very well aware, and admits, that not all newspapers, including some of the biggest and most respected titles, adhere to that principle.

The interviewer said that he had just received a message – on his mobile phone, of course – saying that print newspapers would disappear by 2018. Was the end really so close, he wondered?

It is 65 years since Scalfari started writing, and his answer was: “The print media are undergoing a transformation. Pictures and sounds have replaced the written word. People do not read newspapers these days, and they also read very few books; instead they sit glued to a screen, and not just because watching TV is a passive activity. They spend a lot of time navigating the Internet and reading online newspapers. The New York Times has published a survey showing that more Americans read newspapers today than in the past. However, the sale of print newspapers is declining significantly.

If we add the sales of newspapers by news agents and subscription numbers to the number of people listening to or reading online newspapers, the total number is much higher than ever before, and is continuing to grow. The problem is that people don’t pay for the online edition, and Internet advertising is a smaller and less lucrative business. Advertising revenues are suffering quite a serious crisis, both at weekly magazines and dailies. That is forcing us to perform major cutbacks. We have reduced the number of pages in the newspaper; if we do that for a six-month period, we can carry on without making any major changes, but if we do it for two or three years, we will also have to cut staff numbers, as fewer pages means less work”.

Scalfari has some thoughts on how to keep readers interested. It is not a particularly new recipe – it is the one that he used at L’Espresso, and which was the foundation for its enormous success when he started it 46 years ago:

“The print media will not change that much. We must transform our reports, our role as a cultural mediator, into a strength. Readers already know last night’s news. That is not our strength. We must create a sense of order for readers, explain which news items are important. Our cultural coverage and opinion pieces are the most important part of the newspaper for people who want to think and understand … Newspapers must increase their credibility, use new technology to ensure that the brand, the name, attracts readers. There is nothing else we can do, and naturally it will involve a colossal reorganisation of the media industry”

It is tempting, when trying to summarise his career, to rearrange the title of his friend Italo Calvino’s most famous novel: Not for the first time is he a traveller on a winter’s night.

Per Egil Hegge is one of Norway’s most respected journalists. He worked at Aftenposten from 1962 to 2005 as a foreign correspondent, editor of the A-magasinet supplement and cultural editor. He is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Fridtjof Nansen and King Harald V of Norway. He is a Board Member of the Tinius Trust.

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