the new gatekeepers

Conference in Perugia takes the pulse of journalism worldwide

April 16, 2018

Every year for the last 12 years, some of the top thinkers in journalism, as well as many CEOs of media companies, publishers and startups, have gathered in the Italian city of Perugia for a one-of-a-kind conference called the International Journalism Festival. The summit offered an eyeopening, global perspective on topics that continually confound US journalists.

The word “festival” might seem like an odd term to describe a journalism conference, but when you are surrounded by buildings that date back to the 13th century and some of the best food in Europe, it somehow seems appropriate. It’s difficult to sum up the main theme of a conference that runs for five days, with more than 700 speakers over a dozen different venues and at least two languages (English and Italian).

There were panels on how to build trust and community and connections with readers—including a discussion I had with NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen on how to “optimize journalism for trust”—as well as tips on how to handle the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR, a debate on the value of algorithms, panels on the decline of local journalism, and a keynote by Omar Mohammed, the man behind a previously anonymous Iraqi blog called Mosul Eye.

But every year, there are key topics, questions, or fears that pop up in the titles of panels or the conversations in the hotels (and bars) after the official events. In previous years I’ve gone, these conversations were around blogging, and then Twitter, and then Facebook and other startups.

At this year’s conference, which ended this past weekend, one of the words that kept coming up—not surprisingly—was misinformation, and occasionally “fake news”—a term many journalists stopped using after it was co-opted by Trump. American conference-goers might have been shocked not to see more appearances of the president’s name. And while he was a shadow that hung over the discussions (especially after he tweeted about a Syrian missile strike), he was not the only one, and not even close to being the most dangerous.

As talking to journalists from other countries continually reminds me, the US may be a giant on the political stage, but when it comes to electing a demagogue who threatens journalists, Trump is still a piker compared to someone like Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte. Conference attendees got that message directly from Maria Ressa, a journalist in the Philippines who runs a site called Rappler, which has been targeted by Duterte for its reporting. At another event, a former Turkish journalist who is now in exile talked about how dozens of his former colleagues are currently in prison.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

When it comes to vehicles for misinformation, the name that kept cropping up was Facebook, which also sponsored the conference (along with Google). Campbell Brown, head of news for the social network, was scheduled to do a keynote but cancelled at the last minute, likely in part because of the PR firestorm the company is currently caught in. Instead, the keynote turned into a panel talking about what Facebook could do to help journalism, a list that included handing over large bags of cash.

The social network was a looming presence in more than one panel, even if it wasn’t referred to directly. But one of the more optimistic attendees told me this year’s conference reinforced the idea that “the Facebook era is over,” and media startups and entrepreneurs and thinkers of all kinds are working on ways to do an end run around the giant platform and connect directly with users. Though existing media companies whose businesses still rely on it may not have that luxury.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.