Marco Cobianchi, founder and editorial lead at online platform #Truenumbers and contributor to Panorama, talks to Gorkana’s Mario Cipriano.
You launched #Truenumbers nearly two years ago. What is it and why launch it?
#Truenumbers is actually several things. In effect, it is a video news site which runs a range of web series with high TV production values. The editorial philosophy for all of this is that numbers can be used to tell any piece of news – from international politics to current affairs to gossip and, obviously, economic stories.
#Truenumbers is different from any other information website because we use, exclusively, official sources. The reason I launched #Truenumbers is that, being a journalist, I was very tired of reading stories that hadn’t had any basis in fact.
Right now, when it should be important to communicate objective facts, the media – not just the web – communicates opinions. #Truenumbers does it the other way round: we only communicate facts, using numbers.
What is the real meaning of the concept “data journalism”?
In my opinion, the real meaning is starting from numbers – before telling a story – instead of starting from what do you already have in mind, from what do you want to say, and then find the numbers that support your reasoning.
Unfortunately, I see the latter too often: stories written with numbers but where numbers are chosen based on their compatibility with the thesis that the journalist wants to communicate.
This is very dangerous because numbers have an inherent authority which readers find difficult to ignore, thus giving theories credibility.
I’ll give you an example: if I say that today Milan is warm, this is an opinion that anyone –based on how you’re dressed or on what temperature you’re used to – can refute or contest.
But, if I say that today in Milan it is 25 degrees Centigrade, no one – unless you have a thermometer in your pocket – can deny that fact. The choice of the numbers, when writing an article, is so important.
How do you source information? What plans do you have for the future?
We spend most of our time carefully looking for numbers and statistics. We check the websites of interior ministries all over the world and statistics offices, international organisations, central banks and monetary authorities and many other official sources.
Sometimes we start from numbers to write news; other times we start from international news and then we look at numbers to explain an event or to contradict it.
Our programmes are set to expand our business to a national and international level. In March we launched a website dedicated to the Emilia Romagna region – emiliaromagna.truenumbers.it – one of the 20 Italian regions, and we intend to create more like that.
In 2017, we would like to open a #Truenumbers website in at least one other European country; probably in Spain, then France, Germany and Russia.
What are the key factors which make a story popular on social media?
There are two different types. The first one is stories that contradict the stereotypes touted by the media. Often numbers, in fact, demonstrate the opposite of what people usually believe.
For example, if you take into consideration the numbers published by the United Nations regarding economic development in the world, you’ll discover that in the last few years the number of children dying of hunger before the age of five has decreased; and water is available to 91 % of the world population.
Those facts contradict media clichés, which highlight the state of the world is getting worse and worse, while the truth is that the world is getting better and better.
The other type of news, which works through social media, is talking about current events told from a different angle than the other media.
What is your relationship with PRs? What should they bear in mind when pitching stories?
For the kind of work I do at #Truenumbers I don’t have much of a relationship with PR offices, while, as Head of the Economics editorial team of the main Italian weekly magazine, Panorama, they contact me more.
What I have noticed is some difficulty from PRs in understanding that newspapers publish news – they don’t and they shouldn’t promote private companies.
PR offices should start thinking that their “client” is the newspaper, so they should provide interesting stories instead of stories that only are of interest to their own clients.
I understand private companies pay PRs for publishing stories that often have no interest for the general public, but they should start reasoning in a different way – the ‘true client’ is the newspapers. If they really want us to publish their stories, then they should provide interesting news.
What advice would you give to aspiring journalists?
I have thousands of suggestions, but I’ll say just one: do the opposite of what all your other colleagues do!
What is the most memorable story you’ve reported on? Or which has impacted upon your career the most?
I’ve was the first western journalist to go into the headquarters of LAFICO – the Lybian foreign investment company – which was truly powerful during Gaddafi era.
It was an exciting story – not only because I was the first – but also because the headquarters of a so rich and powerful company was in a modest, dirty and dusty building, made of cement in a suburb of Tripoli.
It was a very blatant juxtaposition that allowed me to write a great story.
- Marco Cobianchi was interviewed by Gorkana’s Mario Cipriano.