Report from Rome: In health crisis, Italians rediscover the value of quality journalism

By Grzegorz Piechota

International News Media Association (INMA)

London, England

Alessio Balbi heads the digital newsroom of La Repubblica, the flagship of Rome-based GEDI Editorial Group, a conglomerate of national and local newspapers, magazines, digital sites, and radio stations. During a recent online hangout with INMA, he told the story of his country’s tragedy and his newspaper’s revival. 

COVID-19 was first confirmed to spread into Italy in the last days of January when two Chinese tourists tested positive in Rome. The shock came a month later, on the night of February 20, when a young man with no contact with China tested positive in the northern region of Lombardy. Within days, a cluster of dozens of cases was detected. 

The documented cases of COVID-19 in Italy as of March 26.
The documented cases of COVID-19 in Italy as of March 26.

Overnight, the number of daily readers on the Web site of La Repubblica more than doubled to 8 million. “We did not know the news would soon turn our lives upside down,” Balbi recalled. 

Mandatory quarantines were first declared by the government in the north of Italy and then spread in southern Italy. In the first week of March, La Repubblica started to send its employees home, firstly to ease the crowds in the Rome office and later to halt the spread of the virus. 

On March 12, Italy shut down schools, universities, and most businesses. Newsstands were exempted by the government from the shutdown at the last minute. They were saved by appeals such as the one by Carlo Verdelli, editor-in-chief of La Repubblica, who called the government to include press distributors on the “essential” business list or face “irreparable damage to all citizens.” 

Since the lockdown, most journalists, producers, advertising sales reps, and technicians have been working remotely. When INMA talked to Balbi on a Saturday afternoon, he was in his open space office with less than 20 colleagues — about one-third of what he would typically see. Respecting the social distancing rule, they were sitting two meters from each other. 

The world got mad. The work got disrupted. But what about journalism? 

“The biggest issue in this crisis is how to maintain the highest editorial standards while people are scared and bombarded with information,” Balbi said. “It’s a great honour to serve people in this difficult time, but it is also very challenging if one cares about speed but also our credibility and trustworthiness.”

On readers’ needs: “Firstly, people most read about deaths. Now they are looking for hope.” 

In 2019, per the Reuters Institute’s annual survey, the top news sources in Italy were television broadcasters, their Web sites, and social media apps. As the virus spread, misinformation spread rapidly, too. For example, rumours about the military supposedly sent to the streets or false claims about vaccines on sale circulated freely on social media. 

In these circumstances, many more Italians than usual turned to respectable brands such as La Repubblica for verified information and advice. According to Comscore, an analytics company, the audience of general Italian news sites in the week of March 9 shot up by 142% vs. the first week of January. 

Before the pandemic, La Repubblica was already the most visited newspaper Web site in Italy with 3.4 million daily readers, according to the local analytics company Audiweb’s January report. By March, Balbi reported it more than doubled its reach to 8 million readers daily — punctuated by a historic peak of 9 million. 

“In the first weeks of the pandemic, people mostly read the updates about the number of infected and deaths and advice how to stay safe,” Balbi said. “Now they are looking for hope: stories of people recovering from the virus, babies being born healthy.” 

As Italians have been working or studying from homes, they accessed news more often from desktop computers or laptops than from mobile devices. For example, the share of the desktop views of the La Repubblica home page jumped to 56% after the lockdown from 47% in a comparable 2019 holiday season. 

On subscription bump: “Tragedy makes people aware of the difference journalism makes.” 

During the lockdown people have developed new routines, of which one is tuning in to news every evening after 6:00 p.m. when the government releases daily updates on the struggle with COVID-19. La Repubblica responded with a new evening online edition, available only to subscribers. 

La Repubblica runs a freemium Web site with one-third of its articles behind the paywall. During the crisis, the company unlocked updates about government policies, health advice, and the chief editor’s editorials as a public service. But it also increased the overall number of paid stories: Before the pandemic only 10% articles were behind the paywall. 

By the week of March 23, the number of digital subscribers increased by more than 50% and crossed a milestone of 100,000. It’s now 110,000 and growing. To allow more readers to try its quality journalism, La Repubblica introduced a discounted offer of €1 per month for the first three months. After the introductory period, readers will pay the regular price of €9.99 per month.

Here’s another big lessons from Alessio Balbi: “The national tragedy brings a loss of life and disrupts our lifestyle, but it also makes people more aware of the difference journalism makes.” 

In a country where newspaper circulations have been in decline for years and not many readers wanted to pay for news, this signals a major shift. “Three weeks ago, I would say: ‘Reaching 100,000 online subscribers in Italy is impossible.’ Now we are focused on how to keep them after the trial is over,” Balbi said. 

The new initiatives, aimed at helping readers develop a habit, include: 

  • Launching new e-mail newsletters, such as “Antivirus” with the updates on COVID-19 and “Restando a casa” (“Staying at home”) with the daily tips on fitness, TV, and music. Both enjoy 10,000 subscribers. The morning briefing “Buongiorno” remains the most popular newsletter with 110,000 subscribers. 
  • Stepping up the production of podcasts. Besides “La Giornata” (“The Daily”) and the audio version of the eight best newspaper stories each day (“Gli Audioarticoli”), La Repubblica has a dozen daily and weekly columns (“Le Rubriche”) and many audio long forms and series (“Le Storie”). 

On advertising outlook: “30% decline in ads is a fair prediction.” 

The print circulation of about 140,000 in January, per the report by ADS, has also increased, but not as much as digital subscription sales. Despite open newsstands, lockdowns kept most of the public self-isolated at homes. (Italy has no tradition of home-delivered newspapers, and most sales are on the streets.) 

The outlook for Italian newspapers such as La Repubblica is dimmed by the economic environment. To save lives, the government basically shut down the economy, and one sees the collapse of entire industries such as hospitality and travel. 

Although digital advertising revenue in March was not yet reported, most bookings were made and paid before the pandemic. Yet Balbi is concerned about the coming months: “It’s impossible to predict what is going to happen in April, much less in the second part of the year. It all depends on how the coronavirus pandemic evolves.”

According to the latest INMA survey, news publishers internationally forecasted a 30% decline in advertising revenues in the secondquarter of 2020 due to the global recession caused by the health crisis.

“I think 30% is fair,” Balbi said. 

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Editor’s note: La Repubblica’s digital managing editor Alessio Balbi will be a guest speaker at the just-in-time Readers-First Meet-Up at 10:00 a.m. New York time Wednesday, April 1: “The Stories Behind the COVID-19 Subscription Bump.” Register for this Webinar now.

About Grzegorz Piechota