I have a little piece of good news to share with you which will explain why, for the next year, I won’t be posting so often on this blog, I am the newly-elected President of the Foreign Press Association in Italy (Associazione della Stampa Estera in Italia www.stampaestera.org), the biggest foreign press association in the world with nearly 400 journalists from 54 different countries. The numbers are no surprise, I guess, given that Rome is a pretty plum posting. Those who get assigned to Rome tend to stay, others, like me, come to Italy for different reasons and do not leave.
On the 17th of February 1912, 14 journalists from six countries founded the Foreign Press Association at the Caffe’ Faraglia in Rome’s Piazza Venezia.
Back then journalism was a less frenetic activity, no internet, no smartphones, no email just the telegraph, but they had plenty of news. To put it into historical perspective, it was a few months before the sinking of the Titanic, Italy still had a King, Victor Emmanuel III, and there was a Prime Minister named Giovanni Giolitti (nothing to do with the now famous Giolitti Gelateria near the Italian parliament).
Italy was involved in the Italo-Turkish war as they tried to wrest parts of Libya from the Ottoman Empire. In 1912 a young socialist activist named Benito Mussolini took over as head of the party newspaper “Avanti”. I wonder if those 14 journalists at the Caffe Faraglia had any idea what was coming.
In 2019 journalists working in Rome have plenty to cover as well. We are following a fractious coalition government of the populist Five Star Movement and the right-wing League, whose leaders have trouble agreeing on most issues. Across the Tiber, the roller-coaster papacy of Pope Francis keeps many of us busy. We are witnessing and narrating the rise of populism in Europe, extremism, Brexit, racism, terrorism, migration, climate change, natural disasters, and economic fluctuations.
We also often have the pleasure of some lighter stories in a country steeped in history and art: This year is the 500th anniversary of Leonardo Da Vinci’s death with all the accompanying exhibitions and events, for example. For some correspondents there is the Venice Film Festival and Milan Fashion to follow, others follow questions of food, something fundamental in Italy, where pasta, prosciutto, mozzarella, and wine production are news stories. As a result, our association has committees that seek out stories and events related to culture, food, and cinema.
Not to be misleading, I should add that it is not always peaches and cream, peace and love at the Stampa Estera. Inevitably, if you throw 400 competitive, ambitious journalists from different cultures, customs, and ethical standards into the same pot, there are bound to be some misapprehensions. And sometimes I wonder as I pass through the glass door entrance at Via Dell’ Umilta’ 83/c (translated: Humility Street) whether I am wandering into a fancy palazzo in the historic part of Rome filled with a group of international intellectuals or into a viper’s nest.
In its 107-year history there have only been five women presidents, including me. I am also the first mother to serve as president. The women who have preceded me are all top journalists from around the world, Ann-Marie Kjellander (Sweden), Marcelle Padovani (France), Valentina Alazraki (Mexico), and last year Esma Cakir (Turkey).
Esma deserves great credit for the recent renaissance at the association. With her energy, determination and team spirit, the Stampa Estera has become a focal point in Rome with government ministers regularly giving press conferences along with prominent institutional and cultural figures, briefings and social events every day. My first press conference as President this past week was with the Mayor of Venice speaking about the new day-tripper’s tax.
P.S. In case my bosses read this, it is a huge honor to have been elected President of the Stampa Estera but it is an unpaid position, so my primary responsibilities are still my job with Associated Press.