On the future of online news

Giuseppe “Beppe” Severgnini is one of Italy’s most influential journalists. He has been writing for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera since 1995 and started a career in television at around the same time. Severgnini also launched a weekly column called “Italians” that soon turned into a web forum that is now among the most widely read websites in Italy. Severgnini reported from Russia, China and Eastern Europe before the fall of the Soviet Union.

At 53, Severgnini can be considered part of an older generation of journalists. But he is well aware of the challenges the press faces, and has been a firm believer in the power of the internet since its beginning.

Giuseppe Severgnini was in Cairo this week for a conference titled “Web Newspapers and Print Newspapers,” organized by the Cairo International Book Fair. Al-Masry Al-Youm sat down with him to talk about the future of news media.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: Do you think that the crisis in print journalism worldwide will resolve itself at some point?

Beppe Severgnini: No, and I am not exaggerating when I say that the print papers are doomed. I’ve been a professional journalist for the past 30 years, and I realized soon enough what was going to happen if I did not diversify my activities. I was a correspondent for Corriere Della Serra in America at the time and I saw it coming. I remember telling my colleagues in Italy, “The internet is going to change our lives, our readers are now able to react directly to what we publish and we will have to answer them!” They were looking at me as if this thing would never exceed the borders of the States and had to be considered as a mere “fashion.”

I have a website that is the largest for a journalist in Italy, with a huge community that exceeds 200,000 people. I started working for television in the mid-nineties and now I have my own program on Italian television. So I don’t care if most of my journalism work is free. For a columnist/writer, this current system is perfect. But I’m not stupid and I know that it’s not as good for the whole industry. Newspapers need to find a way to finance themselves, and the current image is gloomy: sales are crumbling everywhere. In America they experienced a five to seven percent drop a year and honestly, no industry can survive that. A newspaper must pay for the journalists, the paper, the print, the distribution. Those costs are fixed, but both advertising and sales are crumbling. It’s obvious that a business model like that cannot survive. So I can see only two ways out. The first is to sell our souls to the highest bidder, be it a government or big companies–which some of our colleagues are very happy to do provided the price is good–or resort to a system of micro-payment for the online press.

Al-Masry: What does the online micro-payment system you have in mind look like?

Severgnini: First of all, the mere concept of paying to access information will come as a shock for most people. You may pay for sports channels, for movies, a lot of people apparently are happy to pay for porn, but not news. This is something that is considered free. But this model cannot last forever, because producing good information does cost. In order to be reasonably free, journalists need to have a decent, and maybe even good, salary. Otherwise, let’s be honest, anybody can buy you. So what I think should be done to boost the profitability of online newspapers is transform newspapers into a sort of club that would give access to some articles for free and some not, like a big reader community. Then the key word is “painless payment,” where you give your credit card number, and let’s say you can read three pieces for free every day, but if you do more than that then they’ll start charging a very small sum. Would you really stop reading the newspaper because you will be charged 0.4 euros a day?

Al-Masry: Do you think it would be a folly to finance and launch a new print newspaper nowadays?

Severgnini: Yes. If I were to put money into a newspaper it would be an online publication. The print is too risky now. If you already have a printed production, it’s probably worth keeping, maximizing and streamlining, but I would not invest in a new print production.

Al-Masry: What about the pleasure of leafing through a print newspaper, how can websites compete with that?

Severgnini: You are professionally romantic for a young journalist, but at some point the romantic idea linked to the traditional print newspaper is close to fetishism. The fate of print journalism is very close to what is happening in the book industry right now: the spread of E-books has started. The encyclopaedia? Gone. Wikipedia has taken its place. Dictionaries and textbooks will soon go because why carry heavy books when you can have it all on a screen, and then books will follow. I think good fiction will last a little longer than other types of books because of the pleasure of holding it and taking it to bed will remain. People keep books because they somehow remind them of their existence, but who keeps newspapers? I bet that young Egyptians born in 2000, when they turn 20, will go mostly online to access news.

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