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From the outside the Rome offices of La Repubblica, Italy’s top-selling daily newspaper, offer no hint that a major media organisation sits upstairs. It’s housed in a dull grey high-rise in the city’s Garbatella district and there are no promotional billboards or oversized Daily Planet-style logos in sight. Once visitors enter a gated courtyard they pass their belongings through an X-ray machine and enter the premises via the type of security door typically used by Italy’s banks.

While such measures aren’t uncommon at news outlets wary of suspicious packages, this bunker mentality is perhaps fitting given the rearguard action that Italy’s print media has had to pursue in its fight against online challengers. In the past five years daily newspaper sales in Italy have fallen from 2.8 to 1.8 million copies, while the revenue of the major publishing groups has shrunk by about a third and forced them to cut costs and downsize staff numbers.

Despite the gloom, optimists point to a softening in the decline in the past year, a sign that it may be premature to proclaim print dead. Among the optimists is La Repubblica editor in chief Mario Calabresi. From his seventh-floor corner office he enjoys views over parkland and a stretch of the Appian Way, the strategic road built during ancient Rome. Today he is laying out his own ambitious path to keep his publication at the forefront of journalism in Italy.

“To sell newspapers now you have to sell quality,” says Calabresi, sifting through still-crisp copies of editions from previous days arrayed across a conference table. “You have to offer analysis, explain what’s happening in the larger world. Online is now for breaking news and we’ve beefed up our round-the-clock coverage – but print still matters to us.”

Scanning a paper from the day before, he pauses at a double-page spread that brings a smile to his face. The piece recounts the story of a coal mine in Sardinia, the country’s last in operation. It comes complete with photos shot in a style reminiscent of Sebastião Salgado. “Here is a report where we spent a week there and you see beautiful photos. That’s the difference: more storytelling.”

From Mondays to Thursdays he says most people are rushed, reading headlines and grabbing morsels of information from their site, which has a rich mix of video content and a dozen daily interviews produced in-house. On the print side, Mondays see La Repubblica sales dip below 200,000 before roaring back on Fridays – when buyers at the newsstand pick up more than 300,000 – and staying high on Saturdays and Sundays. “On the weekend people have free time so we do more analysis and make a completely different product.”

One year into the job, Calabresi has taken steps to make the daily more appealing to a wider demographic. He’s slimmed the paper down by cutting eight pages and has placed an emphasis on photojournalism. A weekday feature he promotes is R2, an image-driven piece that captures a current-events story or trend, be it life inside a Chinese steel factory or mementos lost by migrants transiting through refugee camps in the Med.

He’s commissioned longer projects, such as monthly reports from towns in central Italy that were damaged during last summer’s devastating earthquake, as a way to chronicle the lives of residents. Calabresi’s own body of work spans covering parliament in Rome and following the 2008 US presidential campaign. He is looking to monitor the newly elected mayors from the populist 5 Star Movement in Rome and Turin, keeping tabs with regular reports by journalists on city services, from rubbish collection to public transport.

Calabresi’s approach to journalism is less ideological than that of La Repubblica founder Eugenio Scalfari. In 1976 the latter – a left-leaning atheist now in his nineties whose opinion pieces still grace the paper’s front page – launched the Rome daily to tackle the hot-button issues of the day. He promoted articles in support of abortion and divorce and later his publication campaigned vigorously against the policies of then premier Silvio Berlusconi. This adversarial style found a following and allowed the publication to rise to prominence. Talk to staffers in the newsroom and they are quick to mention the loyalty of readers, many of whom have been buying the liberal-oriented daily since year one.

The paper has been unconventional from the get-go, adopting a Berliner format to counter the then dowdy broadsheets of establishment dailies such as Corriere della Sera and La Stampa, which were more conservative in tone. Scalfari initially opted for no sports coverage and placed more importance on the culture pages. In 1995 it became the first in Italy to introduce colour images. Today Scalfari’s wager has been won, with the upstart paper now number one in sales and reaching a public up and down the boot of Italy.

“From day one this paper has always stood out from the pack, breaking with convention to give readers something fresh,” says art director Angelo Rinaldi, whose latest task is overseeing a new Sunday cultural insert. It’s called Robinson in homage to the Daniel Defoe book and Rinaldi hired talented Italian designer Francesco Franchi, known for his groundbreaking work on the IL supplement for Italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore, to come up with a concept.

The pair share an office a few doors from Calabresi, as well as a tendency to sketch out initial ideas on paper before moving to the screen. During our visit Franchi is poring over old editions of La Repubblica in search of inspiration as Rinaldi demonstrates the speed at which he can concoct front-page layouts, using a pen to mark out space for photos and pull quotes.

Known for his sharp infographics, the bespectacled Franchi has already begun to make an impact on the daily edition with his signature two-page spreads that creatively combine data with illustrations in a big-picture narrative. For Robinson he dipped into the archives, reinterpreting 1970s layouts that used boxes with shadowing to give a more layered 3D effect. He employed a typeface based on a Bodoni font used in the early years of the paper and shows numerals in a large stencilled font.

“The design needed to appeal to a wide age group: people in their sixties who know the paper and those in their thirties who wouldn’t usually pick up a daily,” says Franchi. “I gave it a vintage feel to attract younger people, who nowadays seek out retro things, such as vinyl.” For book reviews, authors’ works are photographed on a solid colour background to resemble paintings and he called on gifted illustrators such as Olimpia Zagnoli to breathe more life into the cover. The insert begins with a weekly cultural calendar, which features events selected by a different outside contributor each issue, and then flows at a pace more like a magazine. Regular features include a column that details Italy’s unique signage.

Initial reviews from readers have been positive and Calabresi pushed forward the release date given that the 40-page insert sold out its advertising in advance. He regularly laments that the growth in digital ads doesn’t keep up with rising traffic on their site, which tops four million unique users, adding that the online duopoly of Facebook and Google draw away revenue.

For Rinaldi, a 20-year veteran at the paper, it is yet another sign that print has a future. “Paper may now be niche but it is still authoritative. When you see something in print it carries weight. People take notice.”

The competition

Corriere della Sera
Launched in 1876, Italy’s venerable broadsheet has sales hovering around 220,000 copies. In recent years it has conceded ground to La Repubblica in the battle for number one in newsstand sales despite introducing its own culture supplement and slimming down to a Berliner format in 2014. Last year media tycoon Urbano Cairo, owner of the La7 television channel and popular gossip weeklies, took control of Corriere’s publisher, RCS MediaGroup, and is giving the paper’s weekly inserts a revamp.

La Stampa
Founded 150 years ago, the Turin daily, which sells an average of 130,000 copies, became part of the Fiat business empire when the Agnelli family took control in 1926. Centrist in its political orientation, the paper’s footprint has grown under Fiat heir John Elkann. In 2014 he joined forces with Genoa paper Il Secolo XIX and last year he announced, together with La Repubblica owner Carlo De Benedetti, the creation of a new publishing group whereby each title will operate separately but save on printing and distribution.

Il Messaggero
Started in 1878, Rome-based Il Messaggero is the country’s top regional daily with more than 100,000 copies sold, primarily in the nation’s capital and surrounding Lazio region. Owned by construction magnate Francesco Gaetano Caltagirone, the paper is the crown jewel of Caltagirone’s publishing group, which is the second largest in Italy based on average daily readership and also includes Neapolitan paper Il Mattino and Venice-based title Il Gazzettino.

Kiosk culture

Italians take their daily rituals seriously and one that many locals can’t do without is a visit to the newsagent. For fans of print the edicola, or news kiosk, is a rich source of information and populates piazzas up and down the peninsula. Despite shedding more than 13,000 stands in the past 15 years, the country still boasts more than 27,000 sales points, including Fabrizio Prestinari’s in Largo Treves, Milan.

The average edicola takes up just a few square metres. But this is where residents gather to chat with news-sellers about politics, where enthusiasts grab their favourite titles dedicated to food, design and travel, and hobbyists pick up a few speciality publications.

On Fridays and weekends major dailies such as La Repubblica come bundled with their weekly inserts and magazines on fashion, lifestyle and culture, which sees the edicole frequented in bigger numbers. The better arranged outposts offer dozens of newspapers with different political slants, a smattering of foreign press and a mix of monthlies; less adventurous kiosks stock the major dailies, which include three sports papers, tabloid weeklies and titles bundled with toys for children.

Reader reviews

Italo Manca, 76, restaurateur
“I’m a regular reader of La Repubblica and enjoy the way they use photography to tell stories.”

On La Repubblica’s new culture insert, Robinson: 
“It has a very cosmpolitan and sharp look. It stands out from other culture pages you see.”

Daniela Rizzo, 36, housewife
“I read Corriere della Sera for domestic news. I’m a fan, too, of La Repubblica’s style insert D, which covers fashion and lifestyle topics.”

On La Repubblica’s new culture insert, Robinson: “I love how they mix up the fonts. The presentation draws you in, makes you curious about what’s coming on the next page.”

Guglielmo Cambiaso, 27, eyewear retailer
“I like to browse La Repubblica for its foreign-news coverage. Overall I like the paper’s layout and its weekly insert, IlVenerdì, for its columnists.”

On La Repubblica’s new culture insert, Robinson: “The graphic design is clean and precise. Your eye immediately gravitates to the relevant information.”

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