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from issue no. 05 - 2007

The printed paper and pixel generations

Growing between the lines

«When you read the newspaper, when you inform yourselves about what is happening around you, you are contributing in an active manner to the safeguarding of your freedom and of democracy». Speech by the American Ambassador to Italy at the conference of the Osservatorio permanente Giovani-Editori in Borgo La Bagnaia (Siena), 26 May 2007

by Ronald P. Spogli

Ronald Spogli at the conference “Crescere tra le righe”, organized and sponsored by the Osservatorio permanente Giovani-Editori, 26 May 2007

Ronald Spogli at the conference “Crescere tra le righe”, organized and sponsored by the Osservatorio permanente Giovani-Editori, 26 May 2007

I would like first of all to thank the President of the Osservatorio permanente Giovani-Editori, Andrea Ceccherini, for having invited me to participate in this important event. I congratulate him on the excellent work done over these years to sensitize the school about the need to develop critical faculties in the students of today, that will enable them to be alert and informed citizens in the future.
It is always a great pleasure for me to address you young people. I have always had particular interest in your potential and that is why I back programs of international study and research initiatives in various fields.
Education has always been a fundamental aspect of my life. It is thanks to studying that I have the honor today to be Ambassador of the United States in the country from which my grandfather emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1912 in search of work.
I am firmly convinced that one of the chief bases in the training of young people is reading. And in particular the reading of the daily paper, that stimulates careful, alert and critical analysis.
The process of understanding the reality that surrounds us begins with careful reading of the newspaper as a tool of basic information. Understanding the facts enables us to form opinions. And having opinions guarantees and defends democracy.
The United States is often associated with the great idea of freedom as fundamental and inalienable human right. The first amendment of the American Constitution guarantees the freedom of the press, recognizing its essential role in the defense of democracy.
So be aware that when you read the newspaper, when you inform yourselves about what is happening around you, you are contributing in an active manner to the safeguarding of your freedom and of democracy.
Compared with the past, today’s newspapers are just one of the many sources of information. We have at our disposal television, radio and above all the internet. You, like my children, were born in the digital age. Most of what you read, what you listen to and the very way in which you communicate is digital. I am ever more conscious that you are revolutionizing the dynamics of mass communication and for that reason the newspaper may sometimes seem anachronistic and obsolete to you.
Mine is the generation of paper. Yours is the generation of the pixel. In the technological distance between us, there is however a common idea that must unite us: informing oneself does not always mean understanding. It’s one thing to know that an event has happened. It’s another to understand why it happened.
The plurality of sources and the new technologies undoubtedly represent important steps forward for the world of communications, but the main tool of daily inquiry remains the dear old newspaper.
And you know it’s not just old men like myself who say so! Rob Curley, for example, is vice-president and internet executive of the company that publishes the Washington Post, one of the most widely read dailies in the United States. Just over thirty, he is one of the greatest experts in on-line information, and he claims that without newspapers the web would not exist. The on-line version may provide supplementary elements such as videos, photos, sound, links to external sources, but cannot replace printed paper.
Three months ago the President of the New York Times Arthur Sulzberger announced that perhaps in the space of five years the newspaper would be on-line only. His statement kindled a hot debate from which emerged a principle shared by the majority of communicators: despite the increasing spread of the internet, it is still newspapers that dictate the political agenda, that publish the most in-depth analyses and investigations, that launch fashions and go into the dynamics of our society.
That, I believe, is an essential point. We live in ever more actively changing societies, in continual evolution, open to new challenges that we citizens must also face in active manner.
To understand a society so… complex, lets say, can a television report of a minute and a half be enough? With due respect for television… I really wouldn’t say so! It’s not a matter of comparing the means of information in terms of what’s good and what’s bad. It’s a matter of considering how to make the best use of the sources of information that we have available today to form our opinions.
I call on you to build your own personal relation with information, for example by reading different newspapers that at times offer clashing interpretations of the same facts.
It’s a very arduous task, I know, but never stop, always try to go further, maybe even unmasking mistaken information.
Reading the newspaper in class

Reading the newspaper in class

Every day, for example, I wake up and I read the articles on my “parallel lives” in the newspapers. From the time when some journalists rechristened me Richard, instead of Ronald, we in the embassy say that it must have been Richard who said something or who met somebody, or did something that in fact I, Ronald, never did. In short, it’s like having a twin whom I never manage to meet! Out of curiosity I looked up Richard Spogli on Google. I found hundreds of pages which reported that Richard Spogli met the minister… Richard Spogli said that… Tomorrow maybe we’ll also read that Richard Spogli spoke at the Osservatorio Giovani-Editori in Bagnaia!... Richard, where are you? Let’s have a look at you!
Obviously it’s a trivial mistake, but it’s significant to see it immediately launched from the pages of some newspaper into hundreds of websites.
Generally these mistakes in newsprint get corrected. Newspaper editors must be and are responsible to the reader.
But it’s different on the internet. There are billions of pieces of information on the net, most of which escape any check on their reliability. The newspaper performs a fundamental role as filter that prevents the reader being in thrall to a chaos of information. The reader certainly renounces the freedom to read anything, real or false, but in exchange doesn’t have to waste time with mistaken or even downright false information.
The debate on the internet deserves going into further, something I can’t do here, but certainly the Web is a dimension that tends to a levelling down. As Tom Friedman has written, in a globalized and webbed economy we are all equal. For good. And for bad.
Is a participatory democracy, in which the citizen takes on an ever more central role, only possible with the help of the internet? For example, we could have a referendum on every important topic and vote with a click. According to you, would that make us more democratic? Would we manage to obtain positive results without being able to count on valid, reliable and in-depth information?
That is why the new technologies are still unable to do without the solid intellectual tools that the more traditional media can provide. Why? Because newsprint guarantees a plurality of perspectives on the news. Because it facilitates reflection that prevents one from sticking blindly to one’s own certainties. Because it does not limit itself to reporting an event, but offers cultural, political, economic and social considerations. Because, very importantly, it enables the reader to access the news on the basis of his or her own schedule and way of reading, leaving room for thought. And thinking is at the origin of every action.
A young person who reads without going into things doesn’t know how to think in a creative and independent way, and is consequently impoverished. For that reason he or she will fail to grasp many opportunities and Will be certainly more superficial and easier prey to conformity. A young person who doesn’t read in an analytical manner observes reality, but cannot grasp its meaning.
For a long time the United States has been a Republic constituted and led by representatives of the people. At the start the system was regulated by considerations of an essentially practical character. The number of people taking part in a meeting was limited to how many of them could managed to hear the voice of the speaker, or on the basis of the distance to be travelled in order to take part. Luckily those are by now obsolete parameters. Now, in order to be active individuals within your country and citizens of your time, you have the task of reading, of being informed and cognizant, so that you may be more participatory in decisions. In the past there was a physical distance between power and the citizen. Today it is lack of information that creates a distance that is no longer physical, but one that can be just as insuperable.
The home page of The New York Times

The home page of The New York Times

When the American Republic was constituted at the dawn of the French Revolution, some members of the federalist élite such as Hamilton and Madison feared government by the masses. On the other hand, advocates of agrarian democracy, headed by Jefferson, feared the excessive power of the aristocracy. Of the delicate relationship among masses, élite and the role of the means of information, Jefferson said: «If I had to choose between a government without newspapers and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate an instant in choosing the second solution. On one condition, however: that everyone have access to the newspapers and that all be capable of reading them». He thus highlighted the role of the press and of free information as a pillar of democracy and bulwark against excesses.
We, too, as representatives in Italy of the American people, make our contribution to the training and informing of citizens and above all of Italian students. Like most institutions, we too make use of a variety of means in the aim of creating the greatest possible number of new contacts. That is how we conduct public diplomacy. We use various tools. For example, we have a website that publishes information on almost all our activities and on the issues we face each day. We have also set up “Face 2 Face” our video webchat, in which you, the audience, can put questions on-line to guests in the studio just as in a newspaper interview.
However, printed paper remains a fundamental tool in our work. We send out newsletters and reports, and we publish articles and editorials. We are trying through these means to get across to you what America is and what we believe in.
You are here today as a sample of more than a million and half young students to whom the project “The daily newspaper in class” is dedicated. The aim is to offer you the opportunity of learning how to browse the pages of newspapers. To accustom you to daily information not casually but in a conscious and directed way. To perceive through the headlines and content of a newspaper how your country is changing over time. To weave into your already sustained academic program a new subject, contemporary history, and to learn to appreciate and appraise the work of the journalist as historian of the times in which we live.
Thank you, my young friends, and good reading.

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