In March, as the world watched Italy’s coronavirus outbreak grow in severity, one indicator crystallised the scale of the pandemic in the public’s mind. It wasn’t newsreaders dramatically intoning on television or sombre graphics that captured viewers’ attention. Instead, people were transfixed by the sight of a video showing page after page of obituaries from a local Italian newspaper that they had never come across before. “It drove home the magnitude of the problem we were facing,” says Marco Dell’Oro, editor at L’Eco di Bergamo in the country’s northern Lombardy region. For Dell’Oro and the paper’s 50-strong team, the number of entries was staggering: the regional daily typically publishes editions of 60 pages and a significant amount of these are were suddenly dedicated to paying homage to the victims.
The paper is based in the city of Bergamo, which has a population of 120,000. It has been one of the worst-affected in Lombardy, which is the worst-affected region in the whole of Italy. The paper’s staff have not been immune: one employee tested positive for Covid-19 and was quarantined, while several others suffered flu-like symptoms before returning to work without incident.
Limited by the lockdown of residents and the need to protect the health of employees, Dell’Oro and colleagues had to reorganise their newsroom, keeping a skeleton crew in the office to shepherd the daily to print every evening and asking beat reporters accustomed to working on sport and the arts to assist with coverage. “Three quarters of our paper is filled with items focused on the virus and the problems it is creating,” says Dell’Oro. “Not much is happening elsewhere: there are hardly any car crashes to report as few are out on the road. Cultural exhibits and sporting events are all cancelled.”
Every morning, journalists from L’Eco di Bergamo and their respective editors exchange information via phone, email or Whatsapp to plan the day’s stories. Where needed, Dell’Oro and his team send journalists into the field in protective masks. In recent weeks, they have chronicled the herculean efforts of nurses and doctors – some of whom have lost their lives caring for patients with coronavirus – at hospitals in and around Bergamo. Photographers are regularly dispatched across the city and its surrounding province to capture stories, such as progress on the construction of a mobile medical centre by Italy’s Alpini mountain infantry or textile firms converting their factories so that they could produce masks.
The reporting team at the title believes that it can cover the pandemic better than the nationals. “We are the next-door neighbour for a lot of people in the community,” says Silvana Galizzi, who edits the business pages at L’Eco di Bergamo. “We’re on a first-name basis with many sources and possess local knowledge that outsiders reporting on the story just don’t have.”
As Lombardy became the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, journalists from across Italy and abroad descended on Bergamo to capture the grim imagery; this included a TV crew from the UK, whose reporter continually mispronounced the city’s name on air.
Dell’Oro prefers to dial down the drama of TV reporting to stress the importance of his publication in informing the public and paying tribute to the people who have succumbed to the virus. “Funerals aren’t allowed now because of the risk of contagion so we perform the role of honouring those lives that have been taken,” he says. “These are doctors, pensioners, architects. Like before, and even after this outbreak goes away, every member of the community who passes deserves this. If, through our reporting, we can show lessons from this outbreak for others, so much the better.”
L’Eco di Bergamo normally sells 40,000 copies per day but its sales are now steadily rising. One area where its presence has been fundamental is in the Alpine valleys where residents – often older and without high-speed internet – are hungry for information on the latest developments. Here people are eager to know about the latest decrees from the government related to freedom of movement or more mundane items, such as the opening hours of the closest post office.
Despite a nationwide quarantine, the government in Rome has kept newsstands open to allow citizens access to information; handily L’Eco di Bergamo also offers home delivery.
In a neighbouring province, another local paper, Il Giornale di Brescia, played its part in assisting the community when it communicated the plea of a hospital administrator whose facility was running short on valves used in ventilators. An Italian start-up responded with a solution using a 3D printer within 24 hours.
Meanwhile, L’Eco di Bergamo’s website, which normally receives about 150,000 visitors a day, has seen traffic rise fivefold in recent weeks. This, and the high circulation figures, give Dell’Oro comfort and reinforce the need to be accurate and up to date when covering a story that will have a lasting impact on the community for months, if not years, to come. As he puts it: “We have an enormous responsibility to our readers.”