Field Notes from International Journalism Festival, Perugia, 2018

Students in the Piazza IV Novembre, a central meeting spot for the festival in Perugia

This year, I had the pleasure of attending the 12th international journalism festival in Perugia, Italy as a speaker. The festival, set in the charming medieval town in Umbria, invites leaders in the field to come together with students and new voices to discuss the key topics facing journalism in 2018. Attendees are global, super switched on, and the ice-cream-and-coffee vibe of the festival of some 300 sessions from big thinkers and digital entrepreneurs was unlike anything I’ve experienced on the conference calendar.

After giving a session on “How Vogue International Shares Social Stories in 11 Markets” (can happily report there was a queue to get in), i also attended a number of sessions on key topics in the journalism space, from membership models to how to deal with Facebook to managing teams in a time of great digital change. From a scribble of notes I’ve collected my key takeaways from the session I attended. But I would also recommend looking at these amazing illustrations from Andrew Garth where he summarised the key points from each speaker.

Jay Rosen’s keynote on “Optimising Journalism for Trust” in the Sala Dei Notari, Perugia

Key takeaways

The year membership models got sexy

Jay Rosen’s keynote on “Optimising Journalism For Trust” in the stunning Sala Dei Notari struck a home note for many attendees — you can read it in full here. Drawing on his experiences working with the Dutch journalism platform De Correspondent, which was almost unheard of before the conference (Rosen is ambassador for in their expansion to the US market), Jay advocated a shift back towards community-focused models which put readers and your relationship with them front and centre. This includes everything from “showing your working” as a reporter, inviting them to contribute to a story, to creating a strong voice which breeds loyalty, and building a trust with your readers/audience which will ultimately weather the ups and downs of your business.

Media companies with a strong brand and mission, he said, where members join because of the cause and believe in the work, should find ways to harness the knowledge of their community, citing the New York Times as an example of a company with a strong brand but doing little to harness their readers’ knowledge. A deep understanding of your brand, values and mission should also trickle down into how you decide to play on platforms, Jay said.

“The quality of your journalism will increasingly depend on the strength of your relationship with the people who recognize, and value your work,” was Jay’s final statement, which he repeated twice at the end of his talk for impact.

“How do you do this with a community of more than 180,000 people?” Asked one German broadcast network employee? Think of the 1% model, Jay said. Where 90% of your community will come to consume the product, 10% will engage, but only 1% will contribute. So that community is more like 1800, which is more manageable.

De Correspondent’s no-advertising model means they are free of the shackles of bad habits based off attention economy, Jay explained. Plus the acquisition of new members, usually coming from social, is boosted by friend affiliations (“this link was brought to you by Jess, member of De Correspondent”) — powerful signals for creating deep relationships. The “membership puzzle” is figuring out what incentives beyond this to give them in return. Do they get to interact more with journalists or contribute to the journalism itself? Jay Rosen and De Correspndent founded the membership puzzle project to harness expertise in the area to help them launch in the US.

What about Sponsorship? Especially where the sponsor is a company the media brand would normally scrutinise this needs to be incredibly transparent, and should be a way to educate the sponsor on what the sponsorship should look like, but “it’s not a magic solution” Jay said.

My take: The shift back to more traditional forms of community-contributed journalism reminds me of the 2010–2011 boom in hyperlocal journalism. This was short-lived and Jay actually credited it in his Q&A, remembering how these experiments failed but he hadn’t given up on the idea of local community members contributing to “beat journalism”. Jay was optimistic these models could work second time round, and believes in them enough to try again. I too have never lost a passion for baking the readers into your work and your storytelling from the outset, and I’m excited to see others (especially at senior level) might be more convinced of the value of community-based journalism by this renewed appetite.

Media and technology, and social

The pendulum of media companies’ trust in technology swings again. You could mark it by early seo-hyped excitement in online journalism, followed by distrust of Google and the power tech has over media control, then another swing of excitement towards social and social mobile from media, but the festival indicated we are currently in another swing back into distrust, this time towards social and Facebook being the biggest scapegoat.

Many sessions were a sort of group therapy on distrust with Facebook: these I tended to avoid and instead opted to listen to more optimistic takes on how to work with platforms in ways which work for you. The general vibe, however, was media as a whole are pushing back against platforms serving them the rulebook for distribution — however there are no clear alternatives.

Falling out of love with social platforms

David Cohn shaed compelling analysis on why media got into a mess in the first place when it comes to social, particularly Facebook. He outlined how platforms originally set the framework for storytelling (eg how their users could consume news or behave) and so media have changed their content in order to reach bigger audiences (eg text overlay on videos), the result being media create content which is increasingly extreme in order to get shared. This, he said results in journalism stopping focusing on audiences, instead focusing what gets their stories shared with friends. Cohn was low on solutions for the problem — but hinted at the solution having to come from media and not hoping that tech would create a solution. He cited examples such as WaPo licensing their CMS as ways for media to start to be bigger players in creating their own platforms, and encouraged media to think more broadly in diversifying their approach to social in order to not become trapped by it.

“There has been far too much emotion from publishers around Facebook.” — said Vivian Schiller in one session on life after Facebook. Her panellist Raju Narisetti from Gizmodo was more direct., encouraging media brands to take as much money from tech giants as you can, if it affords you to do more interesting experiments and journalism in your company.

Leadership advice for those managing digital change

A great panel with Matt Danzico from NBC, Ann-Marie Tomchak from Mashable, Mark Little formerly of Twitter, and Inga Thordar from CNN was a group therapy session for middle and senior managers on managing up, down and sideways through periods of massive digital change. Panellists share their worst and best advice (“Be consistent with your leadership” — eg don’t be excited everyday if you can’t maintain that level of excitement was a top tip from Mark Little), as well as sharing stories of dealing with failures, hiring and firing.

The panellists all said strong, paid, internship programmes were a sure-fire way to find great people for your company, as well as understanding your own shortcomings and finding those with transferable skillsets who you could develop. Making sure you understand the company and mission before hiring, and have clear defined roles was also given as advice.

Many of the panellists had also spent time working in tech companies, and felt there were certain models media could borrow which were effective in management: agile working, standups, multi-disciplinary teams, to name a few.

My take: all companies are dealing with challenges on every level as the media landscape, technology and structure of companies go through constant transformation and reinvention. Transparency from leaders, sharing and resharing your vision, and giving direct reports time and attention and good development are the simple necessities managers should stick to while businesses go through this period. We shouldn’t scrimp on spending time on internship programmes which set us apart, and we should be hot on career development.

Lessons from international expansion

Federica Cherubini on her panel discussing learnings from global expansion projects.

Our own Federica Cherubini was a panellist on a great sessions on international expansion and growing non-English audiences, alongside LinkedIn’s Isabelle Roughol and BBC World Service’s Dmitry Shishkin and Buzzfeed’s Scott Lamb.

Federica’s own point about creating central teams who mirror the international markets you serve was spot on.

All panellists said they would never mandate content to a local market, many offered translations and adaptation services as part of their core functions.

Dmitry said certain consistencies really help with global expansion, such as technology, good HR benchmarking for hiring in market, and good central support systems in legal, finance and licensing areas to support expansions.

Practical tips for international coworking included being mindful of timezones, making sure you don’t have the central team dominate calls, and always find ways to add value which don’t require markets jumping through hoops.

“As a new team you have to spend a lot of time listening, at some point you have to start delivering.” — Federica Cherubini
Federica Cherubini, Head of Knowledge Sharing at Conde Nast International

Final thoughts

All media companies large and small are dealing with huge change, but ever thus. Noone can solve the mess more than the people working in the industry — collaborating and cross-pollinating ideas with colleagues from other publications is the only way forward. Festivals which bring you together, where you can brainstorm ideas over an espresso are the beginning. Continuing partnerships and consortiums of leaders to bring about the change we need is the next step towards investing in the future of journalism.