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May 17, 2010, 8 a.m.

“It’s a totally new universe”: Digital media expert Mario Tedeschini-Lalli on the way forward for Italian media

While attending the International Journalism Festival in April, I met Mario Tedeschini-Lalli, one of Italy’s premier new media thinkers. Co-chair of the Online News Association‘s International Committee for Italy, head of Internet publishing R&D at the Italian media company Gruppo Espresso, visiting lecturer in digital journalism at the Urbino Journalism School, and author of the new media blog Giornalismo d’altri, Tedeschini-Lalli was a popular presence at the conference. (He moderated a panel on social media, which I wrote about previously.)

In a phone conversation (in English), Tedeschini — speaking as a professor and blogger rather than a news exec — shared his thoughts about digital journalism education, new media’s adoption in Italy, and the need for professionalization even in a new landscape of citizen involvement. A transcript of our discussion, lightly edited, is below.

Megan Garber: What do you think should be the role of journalism education in the digital age? Do we need to rethink our current approach to it?

Mario Tedeschini-Lalli: I think we have to keep our values and our core skills — the reporting skills that are needed — in teaching consistent. We shouldn’t change them at all, I would say. But we have to take into account that things are changing around those values and skills. And we have to deal with that.

You have to keep in mind that journalism education in Italy is relatively young. The first journalism school was opened around 25 years ago — that was the IFG in Milan. And for many years that was the only one. And then Urbino came, where I teach, and that was founded 20 years ago. These are the schools that are officially recognized by the Ordine dei Giornalisti (the Order of Professional Journalists). Officially, the law requires that to be allowed to take your state exam, as a journalist, you have to undergo 18 months of apprenticeship in the newsroom. But there was a new rule set 20 or 30 years ago stipulating that the Ordine dei Giornalisti would recognize two-year programs as apprenticeships. So after the two-year programs, the students are allowed to take, shall we call it, the journalist’s bar exam.

So it’s not just a new medium we’re dealing with; it’s a totally new universe — in which the old media exist, and live, and thrive, if they do thrive — or die, if they die. And this is the main problem I’m having, both as a teacher and as a journalist with colleagues: to convey that it’s not just a matter of practicing new skills, and identifying new ways of telling your story — which was how we thought about it 13 years ago, when we began with online journalism — but navigating a totally new universe. And it’s a problem.

In this new universe, as you well know, the molecular content is more important than the aggregate content. So we, as journalists, are used to building boxes of content. So adapting to this new universe is problematic. And I find that even my students, 20-somethings, have a problem accepting the whole idea. So it’s not a matter of “teaching online journalism.” Every kind of journalism is digital, anyway: When you write a story for a newspaper, you’re punching keys into a computer.

Garber: Is part of your ONA mandate to open Italian journalists’ minds to the potential of digital journalism?

Tedeschini-Lalli: I’m speaking for myself here, not for ONA; but we are just trying to enlarge our reach and hopefully have a more diversified membership that can help think about the future of this trade. I prefer to call it a trade, not a profession.

Garber: Why is that?

Tedeschini-Lalli: Maybe it’s because of the Italian context. “Profession” tends to indicate ordine: formal, state-sanctioned organizations.

Garber: And “trade” connotes more of a craft?

Tedeschini-Lalli: Yes. Right. You have to know how to do things — there are some skills, again, some technical stuff you have to learn. And when I say “technical,” I’m not speaking about how you use Final Cut or other applications. I mean how you report on stuff, how you organize your stuff, how you discriminate the good stuff you’ve got from the chaff. Those are basically techniques; but, of course, they have to be imbued with values.

I hope I can help my students understand the universe they’re getting into. Which is relatively difficult, because the Italian universe is particularly obtuse, shall we say. And though the students, of course, read the newspapers and watch TV and are (somewhat) online as users and readers it’s difficult for them to appraise what the digital universe is. So first and foremost, my mission, if you want, is to help them understand that.

And I hope that the traditional media newsrooms will understand that, as well. But that’s increasingly difficult, I would say.

Garber: Why is that?

Tedeschini-Lalli: I don’t know, maybe they’re afraid. And it doesn’t help that we’re the same people who tried 13 years ago to evangelize the newsrooms — and we couldn’t come up with a viable business model. I guess that may be a part of the problem. I don’t think it should be a problem, because journalistic organizations as we know them are going to die anyway if they don’t change. I don’t know whether we have to work to ensure that existing organizations survive the next 20 years. But what we should have is some professional journalism — meaning journalism through which one can eat. And make a living.

And that’s not just to serve journalists’ interests. I believe that in complex, mass democracies like the ones we live in, there must be a professional journalistic function. More or less like in the political field: We all believe, or believed at one point in our lives (especially we older people), that direct democracy was the best system of government. And at one point we discovered what our elders had already discovered: that, in fact, direct democracy can work only with small numbers. And so, as bad as it can seem, political representation is the only way to go.

In the same way, I think that in a mass democratic society there must be some sort of professional function of information and journalism — just as we have a professional function of politics.

Garber: Is that because professionalization leads to systemization of coverage?

Tedeschini-Lalli: It’s just because I think that we’re not going to have a world where every single citizen will be willing — not just able, but willing — to take part in this give-and-take of news and information. Of course the digital world is much more diversified; it gives many more opportunities, and it’s open to everyone. But there are thousands, and perhaps millions, and perhaps more than that, of people who wouldn’t do that — even if they’re allowed to.

Say you’re called to a general meeting, your town meeting, and you just don’t want to go — and people say, ‘Well, that was your chance, and if you don’t come, we’re going to vote against you (or in spite of you).’ Well, I’m not sure that’s the right way to go in the political world. And I’m pretty sure it’s not the right way to go in the news world. There should be, for a living democracy, some places where people can go and simply get information. And of course they should also be able to interact and given their own perspectives if they’re willing. And I do think that function is vital.

POSTED     May 17, 2010, 8 a.m.
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