THE BLOG

A Lesson Learned From 350 Years Spent In The Business

Below is Carlo de Benedetti's speech at the WAN IFRA conference in Turin on June 11 2014.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I'm honored to address such an outstanding gathering of world publishers and editors today. And when I say "today", I mean today, June 11, 2014.

It so happens that exactly 350 years ago to this month the first issue of the Gazzetta di Mantova was published.

Gruppo Editoriale L'Espresso is now the proud publisher of what we believe is the oldest newspaper still being printed.

The 350th birthday of a still lively news organization is a good occasion to reflect on the journalism we did, the journalism we are doing, and the journalism that we plan do be doing.

In the last decade we've heard it sung with different words, but usually adapted to the same tune of gloom and despair:

  • that our industry is doomed,
  • that journalism will become an afterthought of more confusing and less democratic days.

Let me tell you up front: I don't buy this.

I believe that we may have a bright -- if different -- future ahead of us, provided that we read the present as it is, without indulging in denials.

Some of the features of the present situation are paradoxically not so different from what we have experienced in the ancient past of the press -- when newspapers were not mass media, and when news were distributed and commented by patrons of coffee houses as much as by the papers themselves. Today's social networks are not so different.

The ancient past of newspapers may also help us with thinking about the future of the news format.
The digital universe tends to atomize information. Closed containers are disrupted, in favor of single items of content. Whether analog or digital, containers are less and less important, so will be their packaging.

If we look at old, very old newspapers, like the Gazzetta di Mantova in the 17th century, we see just a stream of news, one on top of the other. They look like an RSS feed - as one of our information architects noted.

That's exactly true: it was pure content, devoid of any packaging, but with metadata (the place and the date of the original report). Turn this into digital code, and it will easily feed any mobile or web application.

Publishers and journalists should go back to thinking and planning for pure content, before the container: that's how the brand lives.

Which doesn't mean, of course, that containers don't count, it just means that the same content may be consumed in different contexts, in different forms, and at different times.

As containers become less relevant, newsstands -- physical or digital -- are no longer the only places where people access our journalism. As a recent leaked internal report of the New York Times noted, news organizations should promote their journalism where people are, live, and make sense of their life - and since this happens more and more on social media platforms, publishers and journalists should live, produce and interact with their public there.

We are trying hard. La Repubblica's main fan page on Facebook has 1.7 milion followers, which is about 2.7 per cent of the Italian population. Not bad, if you consider that the New York Times - as I read in the report I just mentioned -- has 5.7 million followers in the US, or about 1.8 per cent of their total population .

But just as it is true for our American friends at the Times, we should do more, if we do not want to leave other, pure digital players make a better use of our own content than we do ourselves.

***

As far as the subjects of our journalism are concerned, we are living another revolution: we can no longer be everything to everybody, the days of the generalist newspaper are bound to go the way the relevance of the container is going: a role less, and less central to the business.

This opens the field to specialized coverage of subjects that make a difference to citizens, who can dip into it as much as they want. The recent trend in the so called "explanatory journalism" is a possible answer to such a trend. By the way: specialized coverage that makes a difference may be more easily monetized, as some experiences already show.

***

So, the road is there, but it will be extremely difficult to walk it all alone.

The digital era taught us the hard way that not only the means of production and distribution are radically different, but that our own market is no longer defined as we have done for a couple of centuries.

And as markets are different, so should be our ideas about competition and competitors: news organizations -- as traditionally defined -- are not our exclusive competitors anymore, and this should open our minds to different possibilities of cooperation to try and re-establish momentum and scale for news publishing.

Newspapers were born in an era of clear boundaries. Those boundaries distinguished, for example, between the intellectual content of the editorial product and the means to produce and distribute it. The digital universe is so disruptive because those boundaries are no longer so clearly defined.
Technology and content tend to become fungible, while advertising is de-coupled from editorial content. Which is tantamount to say that our market was disrupted: in what market are we in, nowdays? Or shall I say markets? Who are our real competitors?

Since the Eighties, in this country, our flagship newspaper La Repubblica has been in a fierce professional and business competition with Il Corriere della Sera. We are still strong competitors, of course, since we still are in the same kind of business - however you chose to define it. But they and us, and all the other traditional news publishing companies are "small fry" compared to the new big global players - as Mathias Döpfner, Axel Springer's CEO, famously wrote in his essay "We are afraid of Google", on the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The Googles, the Apples, the Amazons, the Facebooks of this world like to describe themselves as "technology" companies. That is: the most innovative and resourceful champions of the digital age describe their business using concepts and criteria of yesteryear.

They know perfectly well, of course, that the world has changed, but the old "content-versus-technology" sits well with the idea of a parallel "content" industry, that will have to rely on the "technology" for services without which content could not be created and/or accessed.

This vision of reality is as false as it seems reasonable. If only for one thing: advertising.

Publishers (I mean publishers as we know them since mid-Nineteenth Century) do not sell only their news, they sell also their ads. But this is not true of digital, where what advertising is left of disintermediation goes heavily to big global players, like Google, that do not like to think about themselves as "media". If you look at it in the digital way, La Repubblica as well as Le Monde, or Der Standard, and so on, are the also-runs of the show.

This goes well beyond business.

Just like Mr. Döpfner, I am afraid of Google. First and foremost because private monopoly of access to digital knowledge is an unprecedented uniformity-imposing tool. And also because -- for years and years, now - we have been reading news about global digital operators stockpiling personal data collected without control, leaving us at the mercy of those who would make wrongful use of them, like some American intelligence agencies.

Regulators' inability to place potential global and local competitors on the same level ends up favoring the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few, thus endangering free-market capitalism itself.

Those supposed to level the playing field at the national, European and global level can no longer do their job: since they don't know what to do, they simply do nothing. And at the end of the day, we find ourselves watching helplessly by as a perfect digital oligarchy takes the place of an imperfect analog democracy.

Politicians should therefore begin to notice, as well as regulators. Contrary to how some are depicting us, publishers are not asking for privileges. They are not asking to bring the clock back to when we were the middlemen of any communication. But to have a chance to make it against our new competitors, we should be granted a level field.

I cannot but insist on the need that the new European Parliament that we have just elected, and the new Commission will keep looking into it to eliminate unfair, anti-competitive advantages. They come in a new form, and they need to be addressed with new concepts.

As far as Google is concerned, by far the best solution for the competition problems at hand will be to subject Google's own specialized search services to the rules that the General Search algorithm applies to everybody else. This could be achieved either by an ownership breakup (an old, established anti-trust measure) or a functional separation of the General Search business from Specialized Services and Search businesses - regardless of whether or not such services and businesses are at present directly monetized. This functional separation could be achieved by prohibiting the use of data collected in one service for the benefit of another in-house service.

As I tried to explain before, publishers should and are in the process of radically re-thinking their models. We also must understand that technology is to become our business as well. Technology may have been what put us in this new situation, but technology may also be the solution to it.
But news publishers cannot achieve that separately. The use of technology in a profitable way needs such a scale in investments, resources and especially data that even the largest publishing company will be ill at ease to compete with major, supposedly "non-media" global competitors.

We need cooperation - or rather, as the title of the next session suggests: "coopetition".

We can... I'd say we should cooperate in building the technological infrastructure that could help us make a difference, both in our editorial and our business mission. Relevant markets change, as we mentioned - and this cooperation could in no way be interpreted as an anti-competitive deal, but as a way to allow actual journalistic competition in a changed business environment.

Italian publishers have already began to walk that path.

Six years ago they formed the Premium Publishers Network, or PPN [pee-pee-en], to sell contextual text advertising at premium rates. It now includes mobile premium display and performance text advertising. The Italian digital newsstand project follows the same line. Other cooperative projects are on the go.

I believe there are many more fields in which news organizations can usefully cooperate, even at the editorial level.

Healthy editorial competition is necessary for democracy, but as the Wikileaks and the Snowden stories have recently proved, some degree of cooperation may help in at least two ways:

  • providing more clout and a stronger legal framework to protect important projects from repression
  • helping in building the necessary infrastructure to store, sort, and analyze large quantity of documents and data.

We could bring together major news titles, but also NGOs, Foundations or other interested parties, to build what I would call "knowledge bases" or "knowledge infrastructures". These will help us gather, refine, and structure data and documents, which would then be left to single news organizations to use the way they deem better. They will do that by leveraging their own knowledge, sources, and news judgment - thus effectively competing, in a field that was actually built in a cooperative way.

Technology can thus become an asset of both the business and the editorial sides of a news organization, allowing us to do things that were not even thinkable in the analog universe. This is what really makes our present world different from the one we experienced during the last 350 years.

Nonetheless, let me read the words that my predecessor Luca Caranenti, publisher of the Gazzetta di Mantova in 182, printed in the first issue of that year... they still ring true today:

"Newspapers aim, with dutifully shared praises, to encourage the dawning genius, all the while endevouring, by strict and fair critiques, to reveal the ignorance that - sustained by the stilts of charlatanism and the braces of imposture - tries to take an undeserved place among those who rendered important services".

Charlatans and impostors take note: we will keep doing our job.

Thank you very much.