Is the future of news online-only? It's a trend that has caught on in the US and France, for example, and now Italy has also begun to see the appearance of pure online news projects.
One of these, Lettera43, was launched on 7 October as a new online newspaper. Lettera43 is a newspaper run by a young newsroom - the average age is 30 - with a magazine-style approach. It combines news and analysis, and it offers readers a summary of each article that they can read before deciding whether or not to read the extended version. "To be fast and multimedia doesn't mean being superficial," said editor and co-founder Paolo Madron, former editor of Panorama Economy and former correspondent for IlSole24Ore.
The Editors Weblog spoke to Madron about his aims and hopes for the new publication.
EW: What was the motivation behind launching a new newspaper in 2010? Is this a good time given that, on the one hand, the press is encountering a crisis, symbolized by the Philip Meyer's prediction that dates the last printed copy of the New York Times to 2043, and, on the other hand, thanks to the Web, we are over-exposed to the media?
Madron: First of all, Lettera43 is not a printed newspaper: this greatly changes the perspective of the problem. Today it would be crazy to launch a printed newspaper, even though Il Fatto Quotidiano has done it with success. Setting aside this exception to the rule, the reality is that to set up a new print paper today has a high chance of failure, due to the cost and because of the situation of the market. Online is different: the investment the web requires in terms of infrastructure is smaller compared to print and, whatever whatever you think about it, the Web is the medium where news is going. So, I chose the future and I've launched a new online newspaper.
Talking of the future... the name of the paper brings together the past, by referring to the popular typewriter of the 1970s and 80s, the Lettera 22 (famously used by Indro Montanelli, founder of Il Giornale,) and the future, through the prediction of Philip Meyer: where do the two realities meet?
No matter the medium you use, if you don't have content, you are ineffective. Content is the meeting point. Going on the Web doesn't guarantee in itself that the initiative is good: what matters is whether you are able to effectively provide news. The most modern and advanced technology will never be enough. I think that [Marshall] McLuhan's "the medium is the message" is a paradox. With regards to the Internet, this could be true for some aspects, but the journalism, the good journalism, is something that expresses itself timelessly. When the journalism does its work, gives the news, investigates and inquiries, it is valuable on paper as well as on the Web. It is obvious starting a new project right now, we chose the most promising medium.
Following an international trend, Lettera43, a pure online newspaper, represents something new in the Italian news landscape, where online news sites are often digital versions of a printed version they share the brand with. How do you think Lettera43 will tackle this situation?
We decided to take a gamble as the French did. I have spent a lot of time in Paris and I studied the experiences of Slate.fr and Rue89, which is probably the most similar to us. The Italian market is very different from the French one: the web versions of the big printed papers (Corriere.it, Repubblica.it) dominate the market. In my opinion, there is the space for a new, independent, pure online newspaper.
Repubblica.it and Corriere.it have no freedom from their printed version because that is the one that provides three-quarter of the proceeds. Lettera43 has no paper prerogatives to safeguard and therefore can concentrate all its attention to the web site.
Lettera43 has chosen to be completely free to the reader and to rely on advertising, showing a belief in the democracy of the web. At the other end of the spectrum here is the approach of the French Mediapart, for example, which carries no advertising and whose content, apart from the homepage, is subject to a paid subscription. This reflects, in that site's opinion, the belief that the subscription fee is the only way to guarantee editorial quality and true independence. Quality information has a value and therefore a price, they say. What does your choice to be totally free mean?
As a general principle, I don't believe in Internet with a fee. I am in favour of it only when a newspaper sells content with a very high additional value, like financial news coverage. It makes sense that the Wall Street Journal website is subscription-based, but we can't say the same for a generalist newspaper. Readers have many different ways to access news, and payment is justifiable only when the content offers high specialist value.
So, you trust in a total recovery of the web advertising market.
The advertising market online has never suffered a real crisis: it has continued to rise while the advertising market as a whole has fallen, even if, of course, it is a small section compared to the entire advertising sector.
In addition to the advertising revenue, a web site like Lettera43 could also provide content to third parties, as Rue89 and Slate.fr do. News aggregators or big companies with a domestic information network might be interested in buying a production of news content service.
How is the newsroom organised? How many people are involved? How many articles appear on the web site every day?
We have been online from 7 October, just over a month. At the moment about 50-55 articles go online every day, when we reach full capacity there will be about 100. There are 20 journalists in the newsroom plus three senior positions, an editor-in-chief and an editorial editor. The average age of the staff is 30 and they all vary in their backgrounds: some are "www-addicted" and others are journalists who grew up in the press. But they are all able to use multimedia, such as edit a video.
What is your business plan and when do you hope to break even or become profitable?
The plan is to break even between the third and the fourth year, because three years is the average time of a start-up. [Lettera43's main shareholder is Banca Sator.]