Enemies of the People Invade!

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Look what they’ve done to the Brufani, the poshest hotel in Perugia! Wires all over the place. People with badges on lanyards, saying things like “Press,” “Volunteer,” and “Speaker.”  The bar overrun by MacBook Air-wielding journalists, er, enemies of the people. Italian journalists run after the occasional celebrity wielding cameras and microphones, while the public rooms keep everyone buzzing on a happy sugar high with bowls of free, and apparently fresh from the factory Perugina Baci chocolates.

It’s the last day of the International Journalism Festival here, and, as usual, it’s the usual mixture of politics (El Cheeto Loco figured prominently in discussions, but so did Facebook, Google, Amazon and the rest). Journalist, college students, the curious, all racing from session to session, or, as the weather got better, from bar to cafe to restaurant, with a stop every now and then to a session to justify the company expense account or next year’s tax deduction.

IMG_0197As for this enemy of the people, I bounced between doing house stuff, hanging out with the neighbor, and showing my friend and panel discussion partner Fabio Bertoni around town. He was here for an all-too-brief 2 1/2 days, but I think he managed to get in enough to whet his appetite for another go at it next year. Here’s Fabio at an outdoor cafe, where we tried to map out how we’d do our talk. Fabio probably has the best legal job in New York City—he’s the general counsel of The New Yorker, which means that, in addition to the usual lawyerly stuff like guarding the publication’s intellectual property and the like, he gets to read everything. It’s a dream job for someone who has a law degree and a masters from Columbia J-School.

Next up, Richard Sambrook. Richard’s great—a BBC reporter for 30 years, he now teaches and does research on how to move this hallowed profession into IMG_0198the future. We talked about trends in the business, and how media companies in many cases have absolutely no clue what to do, except for the brave exceptions like the Washington Post, which has the benefit of a benefactor’s money (take a bow, Jeff Bezos). Maybe the old family press magnates had it right—not being beholden to shareholders (I’d be a happy man if I never heard the phrase “create shareholder value” again). Companies are on a hiring frenzy, he says, not of journalists (except for the Post) but of consultants, who may talk a good talk, but then implement newsroom changes that simply turn heart-and-soul reporters into interchangeable widgets. Then, when the companies’ private equity owners or public shareholders demand bigger margins, it’s easier to cut staff. And the unvirtuous cycle of layoffs and retrenchment becomes self-perpetuating.

IMG_1801Richard, Fabio, and I had a little session on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. We talked about weighty matters like the right to be forgotten digitally in Europe, and a horrific (for editors) Italian court ruling that ordered a small website to pull an article that its subject had issues with. For good measure, a lower level court impounded the editor’s car as part of money damages. We did okay, though we were competing with other sessions and one of those Italian spring days that bring whole populations out into the piazzas and make you feel as though you’ve leapt into an ad for the Italian tourism board.

As so it ends. And I figure that I’ll give in. Our venue was the Palazzo Sorbello, a beautiful mansion just off Perugia’s Piazza Piccinino, which serves as a house museum, to show off what how the Perugian aristocrats once lived. Our room was decorated with somewhat kitschy frescoes, but the terrace view was another thing entirely. Perugia has lots of terrific museums and churches and all the other things tourists seem to like, but the city itself, I think, is the main attraction. Here’s a bit of evidence.

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