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April 26, 2010, 10 a.m.

Re-intermediating the web: A chat on Italy’s online news culture with La Repubblica’s Vittorio Zambardino

I spent the past few days in Perugia, Italy, for the International Journalism Festival. One of the benefits of a conference like this (even one whose attendance numbers have been hampered by a consonant-happy volcano) is the ability to escape our often U.S.-centric views of, and assumptions about, the media.

With that in mind, I spoke with La Repubblica’s Vittorio Zambardino, who was one of the founders of www.repubblica.it before becoming digital director of Gruppo Espresso, La Repubblica’s parent group. (The author of two books about the Internet — 1995’s Internet, avviso ai naviganti and 2009’s Eretici digitali — he currently writes the Scene Digitali blog for La Repubblica’s website.)

While most of our conversation focused on Italy, the ideas he brought up had clear implications for the American scene. Here are some of Zambardino’s thoughts:

On net neutrality and mediation

There’s a wide array of social processes that are produced by the Internet that are also endangering the virtue and the value of the Internet. Freedom is going to be killed by strict regulation taken by governments. In Italy, we are very worried about this. But it’s not only Italy: the European Union has very strict views about privacy, about anonymity, about what they call “the freedom of the Internet” (in an ironic way — because they don’t believe in the freedom of the Internet). There are many enemies of the freedom of the Internet — even Google can be one if it has too much power.

Here [in Italy], net neutrality doesn’t exist. If you talk about net neutrality to a state secretary or a very high-positioned journalist, he won’t understand what you mean. It’s the same in France, it’s the same in Germany, it’s the same in every European country: Net neutrality has been sacrificed to the interests of the telecoms.

So what we see is that, on the Internet, other middlemen can be created — we are disintermediating the media, only to discover that we have re-intermediated the Internet by creating new bosses. Even Google, even Steve Jobs with his Apple store — all those people who control the gates and can decide what goes online and what doesn’t. They are the new bosses.

On over-professionalization

In Italy, journalists are all organized in something called an order. An order is not an association; it’s something more. It can give you a license to be a journalist. This means that if a newspaper wants to hire a person that is not licensed b the order, it’s impossible. So we have to suppress the order — we have to liberalize journalism. Everyone has to be free to be a journalist.

It’s a professional organization — that has the power to block you, prevent you, from doing journalism. The order can check if a newspaper is hiding people who are not in their ranks. So this is a feudal way of arranging society; we have to cancel that.

In this order, citizen journalism does not exist. It’s nothing. It’s more clandestine access to journalism…they often ask for everyone who blogs to have an official, registered journalist responsible for the blog. This is ridiculous, reactionary — it’s an Iranian idea, a Chinese idea.

On newspapers as sinking ships

We have always thought that if the mainstream newspapers stay the way they are, they will die. Dying isn’t to disappear — it’s to go into irrelevance. That’s exactly what’s happening to newspapers in this country, that’s exactly what’s happening to newspapers in Europe. It’s a catastrophe. But I’m not conservative; I don’t want to save newspapers. I just want to save journalism.

The danger is that journalism is sinking on the ship of the newspapers — and the goal is to save and rescue the journalism.

On the role of the worldwide economic crisis

The main damage the crisis can bring is to effect no change. That’s the main difference between us — Europe, Italy on the one side, and the United States on the other. Usually, when a crisis hits the United States, you react by embracing the change. Here, we instinctively try to protect the status quo. So those who are well-off stay well-off. But there are a lot of people — young people, our children, our kids, who want to grow up and enter the market — who are living in very harsh conditions, and don’t find any valuable jobs, and don’t have enough money to start a family of their own. And that’s the problem in Europe and in Italy.

On where to go from here

We need two kinds of heresy: the heresy of mainstream journalists to betray the very principles of their job and leave the sinking ship of the newspapers — and to invent a new kind of journalism, even a profitable one, regardless of their age, their salary. They have to give up privileges, because what has happened in Italy is that journalists are privileged — they’re extremely well-paid, but they’re not free.

And people of the Internet have to betray their fundamentalism — their Internet fundamentalism. It’s happening over these months and years in Europe where a lot of citizen journalism and youth journalism is giving space to new initiatives — new newspapers. And I don’t know how many of those new initiatives will be able to survive the selection of the market. Because the market is in crisis in Italy, and advertising is sluggish and lagging behind. And television is still taking the lion’s share of the market.

There should be the courage, the bravery, to mix and reshape the whole seed of society.

POSTED     April 26, 2010, 10 a.m.
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