I won’t sign that.

by Paolo Samarelli

 Why so many articles appear in Italian newspapers without a signature? This is strange in the era of the Image, but as usual “follow the money” and you’ll find out why. Hurdles and obstacles in publishing start from here and reach out to the precariousness of many young journalists. Seen from below.

For some time now the vast majority of the infographics (information with words and images) published in Italian newspapers is anonymous, without the signature of the author or the authors. Often it is visual information related to significant events, made understandable at a glance; often it has a bulk in the newspaper page or during a video even higher than the length of the article to which they refer.
Infographics have been inflected over time with various names. Now, regarding names and concepts, visual- and data-journalism prevail (though they are not exactly the same). These English definitions give the product a certificate of quality and modernity, regardless of the actual understanding of what they express and mean. Perhaps the explanation of graphic journalism could have merged the definitions, however, the definition is too often combined with graphic novel (a mix of drawings/comics and tale). Without getting lost in definitions in Italian or English I refer to all this and to those who with drawings, images of various kind and written words build information up for the media: print, online, TV. The radio stays off.
But so, why the hell in Italy not all infographics are signed? Simple: on the various types of media, on average, they are signed by cooperators staying outside the company. They aren’t signed by resident workers inside the company. This happens for economic reasons.

Sure enough, nearly 100% of the workers hired under a permanent contract who draw in an Italian editorial office does not have a journalist contract; rather they are hired with a “polygraph” (say “printer”) contract. The latter is much cheaper to a publisher.
However, the concept of journalism provides elements of creativity during the news development and a news is scattered to the public (“mediated” means precisely this), in the case of an editor in the newsroom, simply through a different channel of expression with respect to writing (nevertheless, it usually brings in content also with words).
There are other journalistic figures (equipped with a journalist contract) who mediate with the reader not with writing but for example with photography or video or with comic strips (comparable to an editorial). And it still exists the position of graphic journalist (layout worker) who truthfully is also in danger.
Here then the designers, infographic artist, visual designers (name them as you prefer) could claim the position of journalists to their publisher. A position that is denied by publishers as a first step by appealing to the national contract of “polygraph” (printers), because that the designer falls back into the figure of the office clerk (level 8). In defining tasks for such a leveled worker, the national polygraph contract reads: “Worker with broad basic preparation and with increased operational skills on technically advanced means who through the use of IT tools realizes – with the right of initiative on the basis of editorial indications -complex graphic also through the use of computer tools, maps, drawings, histograms, logos, etc. (Employee in the graphic-infographic office).”
This is the legislative text included in the contract between polygraphics and editors, stated in 2013. It has not changed since then and it provides another profile, the editorial technician, a position who seems sculpted out with the purpose to replace the graphic journalist.
The agreement between publishers and polygraphs includes a mandatory haziness of professional profiles by the latter. On the part of the publishers, an unquestionable economic interest takes over (due to a seemingly unstoppable crisis) and induce them to lower as much as possible the weight of the professionals in the editorial office. The overlapping of roles, profiles, and tasks runs on an uncertain line and therefore, as I mentioned above, the call by visual journalists hired all over Italy with a polygraphic contract to claim for justice in a courthouse is natural consequence.
The second step of the misunderstood infographics journalist is to ask the National Journalists’ Association for the judicial recognition of the actual journalistic role played as a resident member the editorial staff.
Do it exists even a statement by the Regional Journalists’ Association of Lombardy titles “Why infographic designers can be acknowledged as journalists”; it dates back to 1988, which still seems to us today.

Strenuous paths

The National Journalists’ Association asks as a first step a letter from the head editor for the sake of recognizing journalistic work. This request usually receives no positive answer or even no answer at all. The Association then prepares a practice that, in accordance with the factual evidence and leaning on gathered testimonies, one-sidedly enrolls the designer within the list of practicing journalists. After the 18 months needed for finishing the internship, the applicant/claimant carries out the professional examination and once he has passed it he finds himself in the editorial office with the professional journalist card in his pocket but still with a polygraphic status. The publishing company hardly applies the new contract to the new journalist. Just as often and precisely for this reason, the designer starts a work suit and experience shows that these rightful claims to the labor courthouse are often losers for the weakest infographics under an economic and moral aspect.
The newsroom director (who in Italy is endowed with the right to allow or suspend a journalist from signing a piece) comfortably slips away from the National Journalists’ Association claim for recognition of journalistic work, and it is unclear how, once the Association has determined that the designer (all the definitions are correct) retains the right to professional acknowledgment, the same director does not undergo any recall from the Association itself. For a range of different reasons, the colleagues and the internal Journalist labor union almost never come out with a clear push toward the management and the company board (generally, they prefer to seize the issues regarding “regular” journalists).
Thus the journalist/polygraph/designer is left in a limbo of compassion and mistrust, not everyone being in condition to afford to resign with a certain amount of personal pride.
I trailed the development of known and still-to-date situations, and I was allowed as a witness to attend some lawsuit hearings between companies and visual journalists claiming their status as journalists. I listened to the questions of judges, who were often without sufficient knowledge of journalism. Certainly, when they were there, signatures on the designer’s work should have been and could count as a testimony.

Page’s layout

I can remember a hearing during which the judge established a qualitative hierarchy (wholly arbitrary) between texts, photographs, and drawings. He was unaware of what is going on in an editorial office, basically leaving an easy task to the lawyer defending the publisher. How to explain in a courtroom that whenever a sector of the editorial office asks the infographic artist a contribution, most of the times specified only with a raw and generic plot, usually transmitted through a written text, then the designer must go through a complex and hurried work of turning information into images, and that this requires a minute professionalism? Another time in a courtroom I heard that a statistical graph (a cake, a histogram) is not journalistic work (here also criticism of how it is done). I think it’s partly true, but the work must be evaluated as a whole. The same designer can work out a simple graph in one day (sometimes with ad hoc software) but also reconstruct the phases of a crime or a timeline, what is called the dynamics of a given fact. Likewise, a journalist can write a “short” news or a caption and perhaps then apply to an opinion article or more complicated and relevant pieces.
The end result: publishers prevent these workers from signing their articles; the workers, strongly in contrast to an era of unconditional use of the visual image, are marginalized and their role as visual journalists is denied, especially when the National Journalists’ Association (that is appointed to this role) recognizes it. It goes without saying that the external collaborators (mostly compensated with very low prices) do not suffer discrimination on the signature (but it can happen); they are rather subject to invoice (VAT number) and are called and moved away at will. Their cost can be downloaded into company accounts, and are finally exposed to the precarious flow of work. Italian publishers are compact in rejecting the status (and signature) of journalist to the infographic designer and this also in order not to create precedents. An emptiness has been created around these subjects and, moreover, it is a wonder when publishers continue to ask the Government for economic help to finance the repeated crisis periods for their media companies (something that have led to the early retirement of thousands of journalists and polygraphs) since 2009/2010 to date? It is important to underline that, given the necessary personal differences, early-retired journalists and polygraphs should consider themselves privileged, as the worse side lays within these indiscriminate cuts in recent years.

Media industry crisis and latest events

LSDI report on journalism professionals in Italy (Italian):
Sales and trends in the Italian media industry, 2015-2016 (source FIEG-FNSI, Italian):
Several professional roles nowadays approach the journalism market, all from a precarious position. Newsrooms require more and more specialists (filmmakers, editors, cameramen, videomakers), especially involved in producing material for the digital edition. The contracts applied to these profiles almost always are not suitable for a journalist role because this saving-related objective aiming at downsize and demolish of employees not covered by a journalist contract. A short-sighted behaviour that, together with many other factors, has led to the lowest peak in sales of the printed copies and depresses the quality in news websites that have millions of readers but still produce less income than the sales at the newsstands.
The inability to hook new readers with ideas and some well-targeted investment keeps publishing away from a process of renewal and revitalization. So far no publishing company and no director (in Italy at least) seems to have found the resource to reverse the negative trend despite practically every day something is attempted and radical upheavals are anticipated.
In this turmoil, FNSI (National Federation of the Italian Press, the general labor union for journalists) recently gave some signs of awakening with a press release that denounces, among other things, the precariousness in the field of journalism. A significative boost comes from the latest news stories (Ostia – Roberto Spada injuring Daniele Piervincenzi and mugging the cameraman Edoardo Ansemi) who have seen victims two reporters of the national broadcast Rai, reportedly in charge of another company of production (namely two outsourced journalists).

Reuters, infographic

The signature strike

Devaluation of employees won’t help publishers and editorial market raising more money both from print and online edition. It is not a matter of getting back to the likely disproportionate privileges and gains of the 1990s and early 2000s (on both sides: publishers and journalists), sustained at that time with the huge sales of side-publications and annexes.
But experience and skills must be compensated and respected appropriately. Together with the lack of signature aside the majority of the published infographics, also the signatures of many experienced journalists disappeared from Italian newspapers, drifting away during the repeated economic crisis. Finally, it should be noted that one of the most practiced and feared forms of strike in disputes between editors and publishers is the signature strike, underlining its importance for the identity and the fame of a newspaper. As for the TV, what has already been said is inspired by the aggression of Ostia, and hopefully, this will be the starting point for a more precise reflection. But back to the signatures on TV and web TV, the credit of visual journalists who have contributed to the video or the broadcast for various reasons are almost always visible.

Art directors

A slightly different topic regards the professional figures that organise the graphics team within a newsroom. At the end of the ’90s the editor in chief became everywhere the art director. I remember a great director who hesitated to attribute this qualification, then while formulating the service order he preferred “Image Manager”. The art director outlines the graphic line of the newspaper and his figure does not always coincide with those who, in the same hierarchical position, take care of the image of the website.
The art directors are great, even brilliant assemblers, architects, and designers of the pages. Very skilled even in recreating the director’s visual imagery and bringing it to life in form of style guides, typefaces, images and everything that involves a coordinated graphic identity within the ideal boundaries of the layout. In Italy, they are hired as professional journalists. Their editorial role is relevant and no one doubts about the journalistic value of their work of building the packaging of the newspaper. That is the facet that presents the entire product to the readers and determines their approval, sometimes beyond the contents. Tracing a coherent and pleasant menu and underlining with images the contents expressed is a difficult task as much as being consistent over time.
The restyling (renewal of the graphic identity) changes with the changes of the directors; generally speaking, it is assured over a period of time to renew the look of the various media.
Proper words from these mighty actors are missing about the lack of journalist contract to the designers inside the newspaper in which they work, and obviously as to the signature censorship. The art directors make extensive use of drawings and designers, and now increasingly entrust the most prestigious works to external collaborators; internal designers are left to the day by day (nevertheless an important job). As for illustrations, they usually prefer to buy visual content from numerous online retailers or rely on well-known names external to the newspaper. For the daily interventions, there are agencies that support the editors with highly professional pieces of infographics. The Reuters agency (probably the best) has its own dedicated department which entitles the designer and the text author at the bottom of each chart/drawing with their respective names. Their production is respected by that international company, while on the other hand at most you will see “Reuters source” on the Italian page. The most used agency In Italy is Centimetri (which do not highlight the credit of the authors as well).

Corriere della Sera

Neglected signatures and precariousness

As I’m impressed by latest facts, I’ve tried to dive deeply into the topics of neglected signatures and precarious work, because they have their own resemblance. It would also be necessary a general restyling of behaviors and not only of style guides, graphic identity and images; more, it would be a good idea not only in publishing companies. The latter, however, having the right-duty to inform before indicating to citizens what is wrong with society, should limit the contradictions that are hidden within them.
The economic crisis has powerfully squeezed workers’ rights and a reversed trend could perhaps help both economic and ethical recovery. Certainly, it would help companies to find the quality and creativity necessary to overcome difficulties. In his small way, the story about denied designers’ signatures, plus the missing recognition of their status as journalists, is an injustice and a demotion. I want to remember the title of a very recent book: “It’s not work, it’s exploitation” by the economist Marta Fana (Laterza) that inspired this entirely personal reasoning

Ostia assault

As mentioned before, there has been an attack against a journalist in Ostia (a small coastal city in the nearby of Rome). Titled as “reporter” of the Rai program (Tg2) “Nemo-Nessuno escluso” (Nobody excluded). The journalist Daniele Piervincenzi – as told by Giovanni Valentini on “Il Fatto Quotidiano” – and the filmmaker Edoardo Anselmi reportedly work for Fremantle Media Italia. So we don’t know whether they are hired with the pertaining union and insurance protections or not.
Thinking out of the box about flexibility, it carries in its innermost significance something virtuous and aligned with current era, but at the same time it forces precarious journalists, often young people passionate on their vocation, to endanger themselves like in the case, not isolated, regarding Piervincenzi and Anselmi. Driven by the need and desire for a stable job, to get interviews or statements, they chase politicians who humiliate them by now loudly reminding them of their scarce compensation. They are subjected to verbal and physical attacks, threats from unsafe and immoral subjects of their work. In a recent comment, Rai’s Supervision Commission secretary Michele Anzaldi (PD) stressed that this outrageous attack has two immediate and very harsh involvements: first, media reported for about a week that a Rai journalist was injured in Ostia, when he’s actually a precarious worker from a company cooperating with Rai at a lower cost. Secondarily, it happens on a daily basis that journalists like Piervincenzi are sent in dangerous areas to interview unscrupulous persons while they are actually hired as program-producers or directors, this way being deprived of any protection in case of an accident.

Infographic by Paula Simonetti, La Repubblica

I don’t think that the endemic precariousness in the world of journalism can be annihilated, as I do not think that the situation of visual journalists in the editorial office can change in the short term. These are two thorns that converge in the same problem. Nobody in the administrative and journalist board of directors in media companies has a real interest in resolving these anomalies. The editorial assembly, as stated, is a direct expression of the company and follows a precise mandate. I’m not able to imagine a director willing to investigate about contracts and journalistic positions inside his news agency. It would be considered unsuitable, and I do not see heroes with such autonomy here around. My hope is that it will come back a strong advertising flow that can support newspapers, and that the Italia market will rebalance its advertising that is currently compromised toward TV (about 60%). A growth of regular positions would be needed, and in addition to the commitment from the Journalist labor union, there would also be opportune that some courthouse would rule for advantaging workers who were penalized or discriminated, in order to create favorable precedents. These records aren’t missing at all, but in the current work jurisprudence they occur rarely, and recent laws like the Jobs act do not seem to go in the same direction.

Infographic by Paula Simonetti, La Repubblica


Visualoop,  Infographics and data visualization, Pinterest
Graphic Journalism Internazionale.it
Animated infographics,visual lab Repubblica.it.

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