Last month, I went to the International Journalism Festival in Italy for a panel on the future of story in the digital era. Since a potential benefit of the growing number of multimedia narratives is that visual stories often cross language barriers more easily, I was expecting to learn all about how Italian journalists present narrative journalism online.
I was surprised by what I didn’t find. In the sessions I attended as an audience member, narrative journalism didn’t come up at all, and the few passing references to long-form writing were mostly made by American presenters. A session called “Literary journalism: the pen is mightier than the video” turned out to be about arts coverage, with a brief mention of the literary essay. (To be fair, Times Literary Supplement editor Peter Stothard, who was supposed to be on this panel, was trapped in Britain by last month’s volcano-gone-wild.)
The festival included great documentary films and old-fashioned multimedia in the form of live performances of reported projects at the beautiful Teatro del Pavone. But I didn’t hear much discussion of multimedia storytelling online by Italian journalists. Alessandro Gilioli of L’Espresso, who also sat on the storytelling panel, offered some clues as to why.
After the very friendly tech support staff had difficulties getting even simple websites to load for our panel, Gilioli noted that Italy has been less than energetic about fostering digital access, not to mention innovation. During our discussion, I described a few of the more interesting examples of online storytelling I had seen. He noted that even the journalists who are interested in doing new kinds of storytelling and visualizations usually can’t, because “Italians can’t even upload a video without it taking an hour.”
Gilioli talked about government distrust of social media, citing a leading politician who recently claimed that Facebook is more dangerous than the terrorists of the 1970s. In an article from last fall about Internet access in Italy (whose title translates roughly as “This is No Country for the Internet”), Gilioli mentioned political fears about the digital world and reported that only half of Italians have ever laid a hand on a computer. (For purposes of comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that more than three-fourths of Americans are not only familiar with computers but also have some kind of access to the Internet.)
Nieman Lab staffer and panel organizer Megan Garber wrote about related concerns expressed by Vittorio Zambardino of La Repubblica. Young journalists who were interested in and engaged with new media voiced frustration with the guild-style limits on who is permitted to produce news at official outlets. Gilioli encouraged them not to struggle for access to past forms of journalistic power but to seize the future and create their own ways of telling the stories they want to report.
The Italian newspapers I looked at while I was at the conference (warning: not a scientific sampling!) offered a number of stories with narrative ledes, especially in arts reporting, but not much in the way of full-on storytelling. Our audience members, however, seemed platform and format agnostic, and were curious about all kinds of future narrative forms, as well as the larger meta-narrative questions related to Twitter, YouTube and social media stories. One ambitious attendee even sought advice on the replicability of The New Yorker.