The Italian media landscape is characterised by the dominant role of television in comparison to other media platforms. In a 2011 article published in Political Communication, Shehata and Strömbäck define Italy as a good example of a “television centred” country, in which citizens spend a large amount of time watching television while press circulation remains low. Mass circulation has never been a feature of the Italian print press; instead, it appeals to an elite readership that is already familiar with politics and public affairs. Millecinquecento lettori (One thousand and five hundred readers), an article written in 1959 by the well-known Italian journalist Enzo Forcella, provides a good illustration of this situation: One thousand and five hundred is the number of readers a political journalist could count on when Forcella wrote his article. Since then, the situation has naturally changed, but the number readers nonetheless remains low.
The low levels of press circulation is driven by the print press’s elitist focus and the absence of the so called “tabloid press” that exists in many other countries. This elite circulation produces a major consequence: Newspapers are not profitable and therefore need external support to survive. Most press enterprises either receive press subsidies or are backed by corporations and entrepreneurs that use the press to pursue their own economic interests. Some examples of print enterprises that are the property of companies include: the Caltagirone Editore, property of a real estate company; Itedi group, property of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA); and, the business paper Il Sole 24 Ore, property of Confindustria (Federation of Industrial Entrepreneurs).
While Italy’s press circulation is limited, television consumption is very high. Television audiences are higher than those in many other countries and television is a major agenda setter within the Italian public sphere. Due to its large audience share, television boasts a substantially higher share of advertising spend than print and online media – a factor that further limits the profitability of print journalism. New media are also affected by television’s large consumption. Indeed, the number of Internet consumers is lower than in other countries and digital infrastructures are much less developed, with online advertising expenditures suffering as a result.
Although partisanship has decreased over the years, it still represents a major distinguishing feature of the entire Italian mass media system. For many years, the print press was influenced by the presence of important party newspapers which, albeit no longer in circulation, established an interventionist tradition within the broader media landscape. This partisan tendency is exacerbated by the economic interests of enterprise owners, who are often inclined to promote self-serving policies and support close political friends.
In spite of the party press’s disappearance, a tradition of political parallelism still persists. Both the print press and television reflect competing ideologies and political opinions even if they do not have any direct structural and ownership connections to political entities. One exception here is the Berlusconi media corporation, which is well rooted in Italy’s tradition of political parallelism.
These historical ties between the news media and politics have limited the capacity for journalists to develop genuinely autonomous professional identities, separate from politics. There has always been a sort of osmosis between politics and journalism, with journalists entering the field of politics and politicians becoming journalists. This crossover has taken place in spite of the Ordine dei Giornalisti (Order of Journalists), a journalism guild that is supposed to be responsible for entry into the profession and its ethics. However, longstanding political differences among journalists have undermined any attempt to build a unifying vision of the profession and its standards.
The increased commercialization of the entire mass media system over last three decades has partially changed these aspects of the Italian media landscape. Nevertheless, the legacy of this past, and the established relationship between news media and politics, still survives – as the entry of mass media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi into politics clearly demonstrates.
The role of the state in shaping the face of Italy’s media system has always been important, even if it has diminished over the years. The state plays a role as owner, regulator, and funder. In the past, several news outlets, both wire services and newspapers, have been property of corporations depending on the state. Today, just the RAI – Radiotelevisione Italiana (Italian Public Service Broadcasting - RAI) is property of Treasury Ministry.
Since effective self-regulation has been difficult for the journalism profession to achieve, both the Italian government and the Parliament have taken on an active regulatory role. Media regulations during election campaigns provide a clear example. The so called “par condicio” laws attempt to prevent partisanship by providing a strict indication of air time that can be devoted to competing parties and candidates, guidelines on the publication of survey results, a restriction on televised political advertisements, as well as limitations for print press political advertisements. Government interventions have also tried to establish ethical standards and practices in a number of other areas, like the use of wiretapping.
In addition to its regulatory role, the government provides funding and support for the media system. Until recently, press subsidies represented the main source of income for many news outlets, particularly political newspapers that were unable to attract much market investment. Reliance on press subsidies has shrunk over the past few years, and is now limited to a small number of newspapers run by political groups.