Though I am not a great fan of conferences and events (as I find them still utilizing old-fashioned delivery formats, which keep and increase the separation between audience and presenters) there are key factors that can make me become a most passionate event fan.
Photo credit: Mlenny Photography
In Italy, there is one yearly event that comes very close to having all these characteristics, while being completely free to attend. It is the International Journalism Festival, which is held in the beautiful city of Perugia during the month of April.
I have had the luck, thanks to Media140 and to Vittorio Pasteris of having been invited to this event for the last two years, and for many of the reasons I have listed above, I have become an instant fan of IJF.
In this light, this year, I decided to organize an interview with the festival organizers, Arianna Ciccone and Chris Potter, to find out directly from them, how they had first arrived at the idea of creating a festival and which were the key obstacles they had encountered in their journey.
Here's their passionate replies, vision, concerns and hopes for the future, as I have collected them in a series of very short video clips, I shot, right during this year festival, in Perugia.
If you are interested in improving the quality of your events, understanding what goes on behind the scenes during a festival, or what it takes to bring over 450 media and journalism speakers to one of the nicest corners of Italy, here is some interesting things Arianna and Chris shared with me.
Duration: 1’ 4’’
Full English Text Transcription
Chris Potter: Well, I'll tell you what, Robin.
First, if there is anything, any discrepancies between what I say and what Arianna says, of course I'm right and she's wrong.[laughs]
The story is that a few years ago - six years ago - we were in the garden and she said: "Well, Christopher, what do you think about a journalism festival?" And I said: "You're completely crazy. It's impossible."
The idea of hers was that there were many festivals in Italy: Music festivals, science festivals, philosophy festivals, every type of festival. There wasn't a journalism festival. And she, being an ex-journalist, passionate about journalism, said:
"Why is there no journalism festival where people who are interested in this subject can go and learn, meet other people and enjoy journalism for what it is?"
From that moment the idea was born to try and create in some way a journalism festival.
The first edition came about in 2007, as you know. It was a success because people came... Second edition, third, fourth and now we're at the fifth edition: It's grown enormously. It has a curious momentum of its own which carries it forward.
Duration: 0' 37''
Arianna Ciccone: The International Journalism Festival was born out of a personal frustration, because I am a journalist myself. I stopped my journalism career early, as I knew I was not going to find a job I would have liked. This is why I started my own communication agency. I have then begun working for cultural events and for institutions... but as you may know, when you have a passion for journalism, it's a hard one to drop, and so I thought, why don't I create an event about journalism itself.
I have chosen Perugia because I live here. For me it was an obvious choice to match my living and work objectives: I have chosen to live in the countryside, in a small town with a very human dimension to it, and so it was absolutely a natural for me to make the festival here in Perugia.
Duration: 0’ 36’’
Chris Potter: It's amazing how many quality people with good will, good intentions and capacity to organize themselves make a festival.
We can't create an atmosphere, but the atmosphere which we notice around here and which other people noticed also, is refreshing. It's something new. It's something different. It's that spirit of collaboration and interaction, which - talking to other journalists - you rarely find in other media events.
Most media events you have professional journalists who are listening to other professional journalists who are speaking. Here it's a mix, which is very rich and very unique, and I think that's valuable.
Duration 1’ 22’’
Chris Potter: It's impossible for two, four, even 10 people to organize all this. We put it in motion and, curiously, it carries on almost on its own.
There are 450 speakers here this year, 200 volunteers, 300 accredited journalists.
How can you organize all these people? You can't. You just have to set the structure, put it in motion, and trust the goodwill of the participants - and amazingly, it functions. If you say: "Why?" or "How?" frankly, I don't know.
There's a famous scene in the film Apocalypse Now, when Charlie Sheen's going up the river, and they arrive at this American military camp in the middle of nowhere. There's this drugged-up, black American soldier who meets Charlie Sheen. Charlie Sheen, being a correct guy, said to the black fellow: "Who's in charge?" And the black guy says: "Aren't you in charge?"
In other words, the impression is that there's someone in charge. In reality, there isn't, because it has its own way of controlling itself. Journalists are normally practical people. They're independent people. If there's a panel and there's no one to take it, journalists will turn up. They'll do it: They'll give their opinions and they'll go on from there.
The festival, despite its size, is coherent and in control, even though objectively it's impossible for just two people to deal with all of it.
Duration: 1' 20''
Arianna Ciccone: The idea of the volunteers came about the second year of the festival. I thought that this could have been a good strategy to involve students coming also from other parts of the world.
As a matter of fact, we have 200 volunteers that come literally from all over the world and to whom we offer hospitality during the festival week.
Since the volunteers arrive here in the week of the festival, they are not really part of the organization and logistic work that goes on before the event, and which takes the work of me and other seven people from September to February.
The volunteers come here and they literally give life to the event wit their passion, energy and enthusiasm for this profession. They are all aspiring reporters and journalists, this is what they want to do when they grow up, nonetheless many of them already have a very high academic profile. They speak at least two languages, most are already graduate students and have many professional competencies.
Here they experiment: They do web tv, online radio, they do journalism work. They learn and they grow their social network, their relevant contacts. Yes, here they do a lot of networking, and this, in my opinion, is the key to the beauty of this festival, because the journalists meet among themselves, the audience meets with important authors and writers, aspiring journalists get to know each other as well as being able to meet and talk with professionals.
Duration: 2’ 1’’
Chris Potter: Perhaps what we've discovered is that the more you delegate, the more you are prepared to relinquish control, the better is - particularly with young people.
If you look at the content of the festival, each individual event, panel by panel, workshop by workshop, most of them are not organized or structured by us of the festival at all.
We externalize 90% of the content. For example, if you run down the list you'll see the logo of AgoraVox, ,Columbia Journalism Review, Radio Radicale, whoever, which means they, or some person has suggested a topic, we say: "Yes, we like the idea." - this is maybe October, November in the year before the festival. They suggest the speakers, we say: "Yes, we like that", we pay for the speakers to come, we provide travel and accommodation - that's standard - and that panel or workshop then becomes part of the festival.
In a way, we're not experts. Nobody wants to listen to us. We just provide the platform for the real experts like you Robin, or others, to speak to the audience. The only way you can do that is to relinquish control.
If there is a magic ingredient, it means it is simply this - release control, give it to other people, even the young people. For example, this year there were a couple of panels which were organized by previous volunteers at the festival.
In other words, people who originally had their first contact with the festival as a volunteer, the subsequent year, they say: "I'd like to propose this idea for a panel." In some limited cases, we say: "Yes, we like that." These are complete nobodies - in Standard English: In the sense that they're not professional journalists, they're not well known, they're not celebrity people, we simply like the idea, not the name of the person who's proposing the idea. They do this, despite having very little experience as professional journalists. Even those who are not seasoned professionals can provide extraordinarily stimulating content and again, even there it's important to release control.
Duration: 0' 31''
Arianna Ciccone: The message is this, because the International Journalism Festival has in fact no scientific committee. The festival is made by the people who participate in creating it via the Internet, by those who have a passion for this job and for these topics.
Who wants to, can submit proposals.
Every year in September we launch the Your festival campaign, to gather ideas for the next festival and generally the greater part of the contents and events inside the festival comes from external proposals. This is the beauty of working with the net, because the content and agenda proposals come literally from all over the world: From the Columbia Journalism Review to RIA Novosti the Russian news agency.
Duration: 0' 24''
Arianna Ciccone: Without the Internet we would have not been able to bring here major international journalists.
What has worked for us is to use people who are very familiar with social networks, the web and other platforms, who have helped us get in touch with these personalities abroad. They get in touch with them through a simple email, or via Facebook or Twitter. This is how we have gotten all of the great names to come.
I would like to underline though that for what concerns Italian journalists, in the first year not one newspaper chief has chosen to come to the Festival outside of Repubblica's Ezio Mauro.
Duration: 3' 3"
Chris Potter: There are two obstacles:
Organizing a festival is not like 10 minutes ago, having a drink with 100 other journalists in a beautiful context in Umbria with this fantastic wine and fantastic food.
Most of the festival is sitting at a computer writing emails to people, saying: "Please tell me what flight you want... When will you arrive? ...Why haven't you replied? ...The panel is this day, not the other day." That's what organizing a festival is and it's not very interesting.
That's one obstacle: whether we really want to spend every year, five months of that year, doing this.
Everything, all the money for the festival comes from sponsors.
To maintain a festival of this size - 450 speakers, etc. - you need a significant budget. The budget only comes because sponsors are prepared to invest in the festival. The sponsors are either private companies or public institutions.
When people invest money, they want a return. A return can be interpreted in many different ways.
One sophisticated form of return is they put their logo on the festival, the festival is a success, and the success of the event is associated with the logo, and the logo gains greater credibility and greater value as a result.
The other form of return is that the sponsors want to participate actively in the festival. What does that mean? They say: "Christopher, what do you think if our CEO speaks on this panel?" My reply is: "Excuse me, your CEO knows nothing about journalism. Why should he or she speak on that panel? This is a journalism festival." Their reply is: "Well, they may not be journalists, but they're very important people and we are the sponsor. We pay X, ergo we should have space Y." Is that reasonable? In some cases, possibly, yes. In other cases, possibly, no.
You'll have to play the game of the balance between what you accept is a reasonable request by a sponsor, because without the sponsors there's no festival, and what you define as an unreasonable request by the sponsor and you say no.
We have to be prudent in managing the sponsors, but at the same time, the festival has credibility only and exclusively because the speakers are credible people as journalists, not because they work for Vodafone, UniCredit, and / or other companies - and that's a delicate balance. Because it's delicate and because it's important, it's stressful.
Duration: 0' 38''
Arianna Ciccone: ...Maybe it has been the one of making the very journalists from the establishment understand how cool and important it was the idea of opening a discussion about journalism to a much wider audience, made up of outsiders and non-professionals. Making them understand that this was the right thing to do at the right time, as the festival started right when the Internet revolution affecting traditional media was at its height and when people were suggesting that the end of paper-based news was possibly nearing.
Today we are already in a re-evaluation phase of all this. But then, when we first started, it was a trauma.
Duration: 1’ 28’’
Chris Potter: One idea is to make people buy tickets.
I think if there was a ticket required to every event, it would be like in Mantova. At the Mantova Literature Festival you buy a ticket for each event. Even if the price is relatively low - that is €5, or €8, depending on the event - I think it changes the atmosphere of the festival.
I think if it was necessary for people even to pay a modest price, it would significantly transform the festival as we have known it. I don't think we really want to do that. The success of it is the fact it's accessible.
The whole origin of the festival was to make journalism accessible to others. If you put a price, even a limited price, it doesn't.
Secondly, you could have a system of inviting people to contribute what they think is a reasonable figure to help the festival. I don't think you would get in enough money that way. If it's a voluntary donation by people interested in the festival, it won't have a critical mass to make any significant difference.
The other possibility is to bring in other sponsors. The one feature of the festival at the moment is that there are no international sponsors.
In other words, there are Italian companies which are international companies like Vodafone and Nestlé which are international companies - but, it's the Italian part of Vodafone and Nestlé which are the sponsors.
The future would be, possibly, that a significant international media organization decides that they would be interested in supporting the festival, because they think from a journalistic point of view it's a valid event, that would resolve the money problems. We'll see.
Duration: 0' 34''
Arianna Ciccone: I think that the festival needs to grow more.
What I want to empower more, just like we did this year, is the area of the workshops, because this is an interesting area for which many of the young guys come here to the festival.
Beyond the many "panel discussions" that are good for our souls, these guys are really asking for some practical training... it is them asking it... I noticed it even from their own questions during the events.
For now we have improved the workshops: They are free and they are done by highly qualified people. But this is the area which I believe needs the most improvement still. We must do more of them, because the young people who come here, must be able to go away with something they can put to use right away.
Duration: 1' 43''
Francesca Cimmino: I am Francesca Cimmino and I am the person responsible for hospitality here at the Festival.
It's because of Arianna that I am here, as she was the one to call me in. It was the first of January and she called me saying: "Fra, we need you." Since Arianna is my cousin, I said yes, but since then I have been running like hell.
For example, I remember that the other night... frequently Festival guests arrive very late at night. We are always in contact with them, but as you can imagine at 2am, you may be missing if someone is looking for you on your cell phone.
The driver had taken this guest to the wrong hotel, and the people at the hotel, being such a late hour at night, were having a hard time knowing what to do. For a moment it was total panic. The people and the driver at the hotel were thinking of sending the guest back to a nearby town (Foligno) to spend the night there, as all of the hotels in Perugia were full. It was chaos.
As I got in my bedroom after washing my teeth, I found six calls on my cell phone and I jumped: "Oh my God, what has happened now?" I asked myself.
I called the hotel and they were already sending away the unfortunate guest. I caught them for a split second. The driver had gotten the wrong hotel name, and I directed them to it, since it was very close by.
I didn't think that there could have been so many volunteers, so much participation and involvement and so many young people.
The Festival is the first time that I live it from here.
It is incredible to see the desire these young people have to become journalists, especially when you consider that we live in a country where journalists are caught between two fires:Tto attend to those in power that give you the work, and to the personal drive to ethically report and communicate the news.
It is also amazing to see these young persons avidly seeking direct contact and exchanges with those individuals that are their models and myths. This has impressed me a lot and I found it beautiful.
To see the generous availability of important journalists and VIPs also has impressed me. They are all individuals that come to the festival for free and who are happy to give their contributions, especially to young people. These important people, make themselves available to the many requests for interviews, opinions and souvenir photographs which the festival participants request, without any hesitation. They are always available. This has really impressed me.
Video clips originally recorded by Robin Good for MasterNewMedia. First published on May 10th, 2011 as "Organizing An International Festival: The Back Story At IJF Perugia".
About Arianna Ciccone
Arianna Ciccone was born in Naples in 1970. She grew up there and graduated with a first class degree in philosophy from the University of Naples in 1994. After attending the Graduate Journalism School in Urbino, she started working as a news reporter at a local radio station in 1996 and then as a print media journalist as a local correspondent to the daily newspaper Il Messaggero. She then left active journalism to co-found the communications agency Il Filo di Arianna (Arianna’s Thread) in 2000.
She started IJF in 2007 and the objective of the festival is to bring the best of world journalism to the widest possible audience. Entry to all festival events is free.
In 2010 Arianna set up the citizen activism website Valigia Blu (Blue Suitcase) to campaign on issues of importance in the Italian media.
About Chris Potter
Chris Potter is the director of the International Journalism Festival and he is also partner of Il Filo di Arianna (Arianna's Thread). He previously studied computing science at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Originally written by Robin Good and first published on MasterNewMedia.Robin Good -