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March 2, 2020, 10:17 a.m.

Coronavirus fears lead to another journalism conference cancellation, this time in Perugia

Losing the chance to gather together to swap stories and ideas is very low on the list of the virus’ negative effects, of course. But it’s a harbinger of the sort of disruption that could be coming on a larger scale.

Two weeks ago, hundreds of journalists, entrepreneurs, and other media-savvy types from across Asia were supposed to gather in Chiang Mai, Thailand for the sold-out Splice Beta conference — but a virus intervened. On January 30, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a global health emergency, and a few hours later, Splice announced the conference would have to be postponed.

At the time, 213 people had died as a result of the coronavirus — all of them in China — and about 9,800 had been infected.

Since then, the threat posed by the virus has only grown, with more than 3,000 dead and 89,700 people infected in at least 65 countries. One of the hottest hotspots is in Italy, where more than 1,500 have been infected and 11 towns, home to tens of thousands of people, are under quarantine. Airlines are suspending flights to Milan, Catholic masses are being cancelled (as Pope Francis shows “cold symptoms” himself), and soccer clubs are playing to empty stadiums. People’s understandable impulse to stay away is costing Europe an estimated $1 billion per month in tourism revenue alone.

Given all that, one of the most important annual journalism conferences — the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy — has decided to cancel this year’s edition.

We announce the cancellation of the 2020 International Journalism Festival due to the public health risks caused by COVID-19. We know that this decision will cause inconvenience for many and have negative financial consequences for some but we believe it would be irresponsible to act in any other way given current circumstances.

The health and safety of festival speakers, attendees, volunteers, staff, suppliers as well as that of the citizens of Perugia is and must remain our top priority.

We make this announcement today, one month before the start of the festival, because we are convinced that the entire festival community will benefit from an end to the uncertainty. Please note that the festival is being cancelled, not postponed.

The scenario has changed significantly over the past two or three days. Until the middle of this week we were cautiously optimistic that the festival would go ahead as planned. The rapidly deteriorating public health situation has obliged us to take the decision to cancel.

Perugia is not near the epicenter of the virus in Italy; its region, Umbria, had seen only 2 cases as of yesterday, compared to 984 in Lombardy. But the difficult logistics of arranging such a large conference — this year’s edition was set to have 249 different sessions and more than 470 speakers — means decisions must be made early. And as the Pacific Northwest learned this weekend, this virus can spread quickly and stealthily.

Splice and IJF aren’t the only journalism-related conference to face cancellation. The Google News Initiative’s Global Summit, scheduled for California in late April, won’t happen. Facebook’s annual F8 conference, which usually features a number of news-related announcements and was scheduled for next week, is out too.

And on Sunday, Twitter announced it was “suspending all non-critical business travel and events,” which includes SXSW, where CEO Jack Dorsey was scheduled to speak. More than 15,000 people have signed a petition calling for the cancellation of SXSW altogether, which would be a huge blow to Austin. (Nearby San Antonio is having some issues.)

To state the obvious, the cancellation of journalism conferences is pretty low on the list of coronavirus’ negative effects. But it’s also a moment to think about what reporting might look like if this state of affairs continues. A lot of reporting occurs at places with a lot of people, after all. If coronavirus in the United States slides toward some worst-case scenarios, for instance, what does that do for coverage of this year’s political campaigns? And will this year’s primaries (or even the general election) by affected by people not wanting to use a voting booth a couple hundred people have used before them?

In the meantime, the next International Journalism Festival will be held next year, April 14 to 18, back in Perugia. One imagines the red wine will be flowing. As for Splice, they’re not waiting until 2021: Splice Beta has been rescheduled for September 22 to 24, when, as they put it, “the tuktuk rides again.”

Photo of the Palazzo dei Priori, one of the venues used for the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, by Tommy Clark used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 2, 2020, 10:17 a.m.
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