On a personal note

So what is this festival all about? Why bother? Co-founder Christopher Potter attempts to provide a coherent answer as the festival approaches its 5th edition in April 2011.

The objective of the festival is to bring the best of world journalism to the broadest possible audience. To encourage the transfer of ideas and best practice from experienced journalists to the next generation. To share knowledge. To be fun. The only way to achieve this is by the festival being open, accessible, inviting. Hence all festival events are free entry, from an Al Gore keynote speech to a panel on the difficulties of newly-qualified journalists in finding a job. No booking, no ticket purchase, no pay-wall between the expert and the aspirant.

Free entry is not a gimmick – it’s an integral part of what the festival is. The free exchange of information, experience and knowledge is the leitmotiv of our web 2.0 age. Citizens, in other words the non-expert, have for the first time entered as active participants into the world conversation on just about everything. The principle is one of sharing, whether of ideas, opinions, aspirations. But sharing is predicated on the exchange being free. Without this critical feature the revolution in human interaction we’ve recently lived through would have remained incomplete. The festival is, in spirit and practice, fully in tune with this profound change. Free is key.

The crumbling of the old hierarchy of experts and others is also evident in the way the festival programme is put together. A significant proportion of festival content is decided on a heuristic basis, in a spirit of sharing and transfer. There is no board of media luminaries which determines the programme in a classic top-down manner. We receive dozens of suggestions for panel topics and speakers from festival media partners, festival friends and complete strangers. The media partners are institutions like POLIS, the media think-tank of the London School of Economics, or the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, festival friends include former festival speakers who have ideas for panels on subjects which are of interest to them. Any proposed panel/workshop/documentary/presentation which we view as stimulating and practicable is slotted into the programme. But perhaps the most innovative feature is our active encouragement of content proposals by young participants of previous editions of the festival. The quality of some of these proposals has been excellent and serves as a demonstration, if one were needed, of how openness to the initiative of others regardless of stature is not only a commendable principle but also an efficient method of getting top-drawer results. For example, just before Christmas 2009 a certain Damiano Crognali who had followed the 2009 festival as a member of the audience wrote to me suggesting a panel on the subject of precision journalism for the 2010 festival. Precision journalism is the use of social and behavioural science research methods to gather and analyse data. I had never met or heard of Damiano. I wrote back saying it sounded interesting and asked who he had in mind as speakers. His reply was José Luis Dader, professor of precision journalism at the Complutense University in Madrid, and Steve Doig, professor of precision journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, two internationally-renowned experts in this field. He had met them both during his Erasmus programme studies in Europe. I was sceptical. It seemed unlikely that a young Italian who had only started work as a journalist in 2008 would be able to pull this off. My scepticism was misplaced. The panel took place with Damiano as moderator on Friday 23 April 2010, followed by an associated workshop the next day. Both events were very well attended, both were highly commended for their quality and practical use by all who followed them, including experienced journalists in the audience. Yet this was the initiative of one (previously) unknown debutant journalist. The precision journalism panel and workshop of 2010 are emblematic of what the Perugia festival is trying to achieve – to provide first-class discussion on journalism for all and, more radically, by all.

Informality and accessibility – characteristics which underpin the Perugia festival. What happens before or after a festival event is in many ways of potentially greater significance than what happens during. Young people can learn much by listening to a panel discussion or a keynote speech but frequently of far greater impact emotionally and practically is the opportunity to speak directly to festival speakers about their experiences. To have that vital face-to-face contact. To network. To get a feel of what being a journalist really means. To be inspired. In 2009 one of the keynote speakers was Seymour Hersh. He came out of the interview room in the Hotel Brufani (the festival HQ) one day and said “Ok, who’s coming for lunch?” I happened to be there talking to the festival speaker Adrian Monck and two student volunteers, one from the City University J-school in London and one from Madrid. I asked them if they would like to join us. They said yes. So the five of us went for lunch. A day or two later the volunteer from London stopped me in the hotel corridor to say she was still fizzed up from that lunch – Hersh was one of her journalistic idols. She also mentioned that none of her journalism student friends back home believed her story of the lunch. This lunch is a dramatic example of the thousands of such moments to remember for festival participants that occur each year. The more the better, and the festival is structured so as to actively facilitate them. The festival press room in the Hotel Brufani is open from morning to night to everyone, whether  speakers, volunteers, members of the audiences, interested citizens. All are welcome and a notable ferment of activity and networking is generated there during the festival. Famous journalists sit side by side at the computers with journalism students and festival visitors. The message is “we’ve taken down all the barriers, the rest is up to you.”

The town of Perugia, where the festival takes place each year, is perfect. All festival locations, all festival speaker hotels and crucially much other accommodation (including cheaper hotels for festival visitors on limited budgets) plus many bars and restaurants are all located in the pedestrianised historic town centre. Speakers, volunteers, audiences can follow every single event over the five days of the festival without ever going near a taxi, bus or metro. And without ever buying a ticket. Accessibility (physical and financial) to fully reflect the open spirit of the festival.

Young people love it. But so do the speakers. I’m frequently thanked for the chance the festival offers them to meet young people passionate about becoming a journalist. Most working days of most journalists are spent in the company of other journalists. The risk of becoming slightly jaded and out-of-touch is evident. To step back and see the commitment to journalism of so many young people who don’t yet earn a penny from the wide range of journalistic activities they engage in is perhaps a much-needed reminder of their own aspirations when still a student, of why they chose this profession, of why journalism matters. The festival is reciprocally invigorating to young and old, well-known and unknown, the stars and the students.

The festival has reached the necessary critical mass to make it worthwhile for visitors and participants to travel a long way to be part of it. Listening to the Q&A sessions at the end of each panel is sufficient to appreciate just how diverse the audiences are. The 2010 festival ran for a full five days, with over 120 events in the programme, more than 320 speakers, 250 accredited journalists there to report on the festival, 220 volunteers. Total aggregate audiences including visitors to the festival exhibitions over the five days were more than 30,000.

The volunteers are not an incidental extra to add colour to the festival. They are fundamental to its spirit and purpose. The festival website has one page on festival speakers and another page with exactly the same structure on the volunteers. Each speaker and each volunteer has his/her photo, name and bio/social network links. All the photos are the same size. This serves to convey in a visual sense the importance we attach to the interaction and mutual enrichment between the current generation of professional journalists and the next. To run a festival of senior journalists and media figures but no volunteers or aspiring journalists would be an entirely different set-up. There are many such events around the world each year, and we have no interest in or possibility of competing with them. Our intention right from the first edition in 2007 has been to establish an annual gathering of journalism in the fullest sense of the word, to emphasize the inter-dependability of current and future journalists, to offer something new and different. So what do the volunteers do in Perugia? Just about everything a professional journalist would do; all the speaker interviews for the festival webtv and festival online radio, the articles for the online festival magazine (in the native language of the volunteers, hence a kaleidoscope of content), reviews of events, photographic and video coverage, press office, other webtv activities like festival background reports, previews of the next day’s highlights and much more. The festival creates the structure for the volunteers to be involved, and then invites them to get on with it to the best of their ability. An interview of a famous journalist such as Paul Steiger or Javier Moreno by a young volunteer is curiously uplifting – it’s such a big moment for them, no doubt to be remembered vividly in the future as their career takes them up the media ladder. Their work can be seen on the festival website. The festival provides free accommodation to festival volunteers for the duration of their stay in Perugia. There’s no better investment for the festival to make. Once again, the message is “here’s your opportunity, make the most of it.”

On the opening morning of the 2010 festival I made a speech to a gathering of all the festival volunteers. My role was to welcome them to Perugia, thank them for coming and explain briefly how the festival functioned. I spoke of how some two months previously I had taken home for the weekend all the international volunteer applications. The office staff had divided them country by country, continent by continent. Russia, Brazil, Kenya, Canada, Nepal, almost all the European countries, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Morocco, Uzbekistan, on and on. There were hundreds of applications, each with description of background and academic studies, journalistic experience if any and the reasons for wanting to be a volunteer in Perugia. My job that weekend was to select the “winners”. And as I leafed through application after application, country after country, the extraordinary energy and goodwill that these applications represented struck me very strongly. All these young people from literally all over the world wanted to come to a provincial Italian town not for a rock concert or a football tournament but for journalism. To learn, to share, to meet others with a similar passion, to be inspired. One of the selected applicants was Dinara Dultaeva, a 22-year-old student from Tashkent in Uzbekistan. I mentioned her application as emblematic of the broad appeal of the festival and the power of internet communication across language and culture but added I didn’t know if she’d arrived yet in Perugia (the Icelandic volcano ash-cloud was causing havoc with flights). By pure coincidence, she was sitting in the front row of the audience. She raised her hand and then on my invitation stood up, shyly. The audience burst into impromptu applause. From Tashkent to Perugia. On her own. Because she wants to be a journalist.

Dinara Dultaeva and Al Gore were in a certain sense equal participants in the 2010 festival. They had different roles of course and received different amounts of media attention but one without the other would have resulted in a festival of diminished value and significance. Both travelled long distances to be here, both were perhaps improbable visitors to Perugia, both succeeded in inspiring others, both contributed to the underlying buzz of a unique transfer of experience and ideas from the current generation of journalists and media luminaries to the next. If nobody is listening there is no point in speaking. In Perugia speaking really matters – because the audiences are fresh, demanding, dynamic, appreciative and because speaking is more than just a statement of what I the journalist think. Call it an effervescent ping pong of dialogue and interaction rather than a series of un-returnable aces by journalistic big hitters. The festival audiences in Perugia are the future of journalism, whether in Rome, London or Tashkent. There is no other event like it.