Is it really all about ink and wood pulp?

is director of OffspinMedia and a former Today editor

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The Italian newspaper magnate Carlo De Benedetti is undoubtedly a man to listen to - an opportunity afforded by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism which invited Ing. De Benedetti (in Italy, the qualification 'Engineer' - 'Ingegnere' - is used respectfully as a title) to deliver its 2009 memorial lecture. You can read it here.

Carlo De Benedetti is Chairman of Gruppo Editoriale L'Espresso and La Repubblica - the media group that owns those eponymous weekly and daily titles as well as a handful of regional papers, radio stations and internet content.

He's a hugely respected leader of liberal opinion in Italy where his opposition to Prime Minister Berlusconi, both politically and as a rival businessman, has made him something of a hero to centre and centre-left alike.

His theme was the importance of newspapers to democracy and citizenship. Newspapers, note - not journalism. Here's his reasoning: 

"Starting from a fact, which flashes naked and unembellished across internet screens - unmatched in terms of speed and immediacy - or across TV screens or radio waves, a newspaper organises this fact, giving the reader an overview which aids understanding and puts it into context. It thus creates an authentic information system that enables citizen-readers to map out the issue and, by reading about it, form their own independent and complete final judgment. This passage is the difference between knowing and understanding, between looking and seeing, between being informed and being aware, to the point of ultimately being able to take responsibility for a reasoned personal opinion."

It'd be odd if Ing. De Benedetti didn't defend newspapers and their role in our democracies, but what was striking here was his insistence that ink on wood pulp - and all the rigmarole that surrounds it - is somehow different from other ways of delivering journalism. His line that newspapers and newspapers alone can support citizen-readers' democratic decision making feels a bit of an oddity in 2009.

Both in his lecture and in response to direct questions, Ing. De Benedetti characterised broadcasting and the web as transitory and ephemeral, good for the 'what' but lacking the 'why' - "the difference between knowing and understanding".

Perhaps the media landscape in Italy is very different from that in the UK where examples of genuine understanding derived only from broadcasters or genuine depth derived only from the web are too many to enumerate - indeed, they're routine. Perhaps it's Snr. Berlusconi's dominance of Italian TV that conditions Ing. De Benedetti's view of broadcasting's democratic potential.

Perhaps, too, newspaper culture in Italy is very different from that in the Anglo-Saxon world where, according to Ipsos/MORI's routine 'Trust' polls, more than twice as many of us (54%)trust a total stranger to tell us the truth than trust a journalist (22%) to do the same. When 78% of your citizenry can't believe what they read in the papers, it's a bit hard to describe those papers as "an authentic information system". 

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