The newspaper industry is in a time of upheaval, with mainstream newspapers looking for innovative strategies to survive and thrive, to re-affirm their importance and their role in the news landscape.
Cost cutting is increasingly prevalent throughout news organisations in Europe and the US, with many publications putting more and more emphasis on digital products as they lose print readers.
Launching a new print publication in 2009 might have seemed therefore like a risky step, but it's exactly what Italian journalists Marco Travaglio, Antonio Padellaro and Peter Gomez decided to do. Il Fatto Quotidiano was launched in September 2009 and in the past two years it has managed to both establish itself as a respected newspaper brand and actually make some money, with a profit of €5.8 million in 2010.
How has it achieved this?
The story from the beginning: some dates and figures
Il Fatto Quotidiano - "The Daily Fact" - a daily printed paper published from Tuesday to Sunday, was launched on September 23, 2009. 150,000 copies of the first edition were printed, 32,000 of these being destined for subscribers.
This was a surprise given the fact that, as Editor-in-chief Antonio Padellaro wrote, the minimum target was fixed at around the 10/12,000 copies.
The printed launch was anticipated by a big online campaign through the blog Antefatto ("antecedent" but also "what comes before the fact"). In just three months, before the publication of even a single issue, the Il Fatto team managed to raise about €5 million through 30,000 pledged subscriptions.
During its first three months Il Fatto sold an average of 70,000 copies on top of its 43,000 subscriptions divided between printed and online PDF versions. After two years, according to ADS - the national Audit Bureau of Circulation - it managed to maintain the same average of sold copies, at around 70,000.
These two past years also saw the growth of Il Fatto's website ilfattoquotidiano.it, which was launched in June 2010 and hit record figures last August with an average of 370,000 unique users a day, according to the paper.
Strong points: what makes a difference
The Editors Weblog spoke to Editor-in-chief of online Peter Gomez who told us about the newspaper's strong points and goals.
Gomez said that thanks to its high visitor numbers, the website is aiming to become the third online newspaper in the Italian web news landscape, which, despite the recent appearance of some pure players, is mainly dominated by online versions of the mainstream printed newspapers.
At Il Fatto the print and online newsrooms are semi-integrated: all the nine online journalists have multimedia skills and write for the paper edition when necessary. This doesn't always happen on the contrary for the print journalists, however. The top printed articles are published also on the website but, unusually, they are published during the afternoon rather than the morning to mark a distinction of content from the paid PDF and printed version and the website.
The printed paper and the website are seen by readers as just one entity - Gomez explained - not just as duplicates of each other, but each as a complementary extension of the other.
The engagement of Il Fatto readers, who play a very active role in the newspaper's life, is most visible in the social media strategy, which has been strongly developed since the early beginning: Facebook above all others, but also on Twitter and YouTube, where the paper has a channel.
The most impressive figure is the number of Facebook fans: the page has 683,016 at the time of writing. The number is quite substantial compared to other international papers. Setting aside The New York Times, which has 1,863,950 fans, many popular papers have figures similar to the ones of The Guardian, which has a variety of pages on the social network and has 214,538 on its main page. (Italy does have a lot of Facebook users: the country is 11th in the ranking of Facebook penetration by country, according to Social Bakers.)
Readers are also engaged on the website where they get involved in discussions regarding articles through the comment sections. Inspired by the Huffington Post, the website has also an important number of blog contributors, whose writing is displayed on the left side of the website to mark the distinction from the news, which is on the right. The blogs help to stimulate discussion and the readers' involvement.
What the readers seem ultimately to reward is the paper's editorial line which is echoed in the title. In a media environment which is dominated by overtly partisan publications, the announced core basis of Il Fatto is giving the facts, "the simple facts" as Luca De Biase highlighted at the World Editors Forum in Vienna.
The secrets of success: why it makes a difference
"Credibility, independence, popularity".
Asked about what makes his paper different - in a market where 97,4% of the population still rely on TV as their main source of news and only 45,6% don't read newspapers at all (see Sintesi_rapcom_2011.pdf ) - Gomez answered that what readers appreciate most about Il Fatto is its credibility, directly related to its independence, which subsequently leads to its popularity.
"Credibility is the most important legacy a journalist has", he said. What drove the initial number of subscriptions was the strong personal credibility of the founders, a bunch of journalists, led by Marco Travaglio, Peter Gomez and Antonio Padellaro, who left their former jobs in journalism with the aim of creating a new, truly independent newspaper.
Newspapers ownership in Italy is often described as an anomaly because the "pure publishers" - the ones whose sole, or at least core, business is the news industry - are virtually non-existent, Gomez said. "The main shareholders of the Italian newspaper companies are businessmen involved in a lot of different industries, from bankers to building entrepreneurs and the risk is that the newspapers become just instruments of pressure".
The ownership structure of Il Fatto on the contrary doesn't allow any single shareholder to detain more than the 16,67% of the shareholding and therefore the existence of a majority shareholder. Also a statute clause states that every major decision regarding the editorial line couldn't be made without the approval of the journalists, some of those, as the founders, are also shareholders.
"This lack of independence," he added, "is seen by readers as a fundamental problem in the Italian news landscape. We managed to bring a section of the public who didn't trust the press as a reliable source of news, and who were getting their information from the web, to read and buy our paper".
As further proof of its independence, Il Fatto doesn't benefit of any form of state subsidy, as other Italian papers do. Il Fatto is financed just by sales and adverting, and in 2010 it brought in €29.6 million in revenue with a profit of €5.8 millions, as ItaliaOggi reported.
As well as credibility and independence, Il Fatto sees its ability to build a strong community around the publication as a major asset.
"We want Il Fatto not to be just a paper, but the meeting point of a community of free citizens" Editor-in-chief Padellaro wrote.
In fact, one of the paper's clearest achievements is having managed to create a strong and cohesive community. This focus on community echoes, to a certain extent, the attitude of Swedish daily Norran regarding its community. "Geography is dead" - said Editor-in-chief Anette Novak at the World Editors Forum in Vienna - "newspapers need to create an identity".
Il Fatto's community is not based on geographical affiliation but on a wider sense of belonging, people united by an identity and common political ideas, and a common sense of dissatisfaction of the current news and political state. The paper has become a symbol to help this community define itself.
Challenges for the future
This common sense of political affiliation brings us to one of the major criticisms the paper usually received: bias. Despite its independence from any political party, one of the central themes of the paper has always been its strong opposition to Silvio Berlusconi, who recently resigned as Prime Minister after almost 15 years on the political scene.
Marco Travaglio, one of Il Fatto's most famous journalists - with 1,102,427 fans on Facebook - is one of the strongest critics of Berlusconi and, more widely, of the problems facing Italian politics. As its detractors say, it will be interesting now to see how important the presence of Berlusconi was for the paper - will it survive without this key point of focus?
Another potential threat to Il Fatto is that it is not doing anything particularly innovative in terms of digital delivery or story-telling techniques. The paper's in-depth investigative stories, often related to court cases ("cronaca giudiziaria" in Italian) are definitely valuable public interest journalism, but will this be enough to tackle the challenges posed by the digital age?
Italy's internet penetration is currently low compared to the rest of Europe, but this is likely to change in coming years and the paper may need to develop a more forward-thinking digital strategy.