Sleeping bags and mattresses are stacked up in the newsroom of Liberazione where journalists are staging a new year occupation to save their communist daily – one of perhaps 100 titles facing closing as Mario Monti’s government of technocrats implements stringent cuts in public subsidies for Italy’s newspaper industry.
In the age of austerity what may be the last copy of Liberazione will hit the news stands on Saturday. Other notable titles facing extinction include L’Unita, the former communist party daily founded by Antonio Gramsci in 1924; Il Manifesto, an independent leftwing paper since 1969 and Avvenire, a popular Catholic daily.
For some the subsidies – although not unique in Europe but possibly the most generous – are seen as a wasteful abuse of taxpayers’ money propping up a declining industry with limited readership (Liberazione publishes about 5,000 copies). For others, the papers, many of them local, represent an important tradition giving voice to themes and opinions the mainstream press will not touch.
“We are defending democratic pluralism,” says Guido Caldiron, a reporter with Liberazione, also in conflict with its owners, the Communist Refoundation party, which argues that it can no longer afford to finance its loss-making mouthpiece without government help.
The cuts in newspaper subsidies, from €170-million ($234-million Canadian) in total to €53-million budgeted for next year, were ordered by the previous government of Silvio Berlusconi – the billionaire TV magnate with no great love for the print media he does not own – and confirmed by Mr. Monti’s administration, which took office last month.
The Prime Minister has made clear, however, that he does not want to go down in history as the butcher of the newsroom, telling a news conference on Thursday that his government would preserve some subsidies but establish “objective criteria,” as yet undefined, to allocate resources to those most meritorious.
The government is also aware that it is only the smaller papers – left and rightwing – that are voicing any serious opposition to its tough reforms and spending cuts and does not want to be seen to be silencing them.
The smaller titles point out that the mainstream newspapers – such as Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica – continue to benefit from indirect subsidies, such as VAT waivers on copies sold by subscription and reduced postal delivery costs. They also complain that the advertising market is dominated by two companies, one of them owned by Mr. Berlusconi.
“We do need a cleaning up of the system,” agrees Benedetto Vecchi, a reporter for Manifesto, demonstrating his paper’s solidarity in the newsroom of his rivals, Liberazione.
“We need an equal and just reform to keep out the thieves,” says Mr. Caldiron. He reckons that three-quarters of subsidized titles do not merit state support, mainly “fake” family-run papers allied to powerful political backers, or dubious publications such as horse racing tip-sheets posing as “newspapers” and magazines featuring luxury yachting, chess and music.
A favourite example given is L’Avanti! – a self-proclaimed “socialist” title with limited circulation owned by Valter Lavitola, a long-time acquaintance of Mr. Berlusconi who is wanted by police on corruption charges. Mr. Lavitola, reported to be on the run in South America, denies the charges.
Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.
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