100 Days Leading L'Osservatore Romano

Interview With Giovanni Maria Vian

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By Marta Lago

VATICAN CITY, FEB. 6, 2008 (Zenit.org).- L'Osservatore Romano is celebrating its first 100 days under the direction of its 11th director in 146 years, Giovanni Maria Vian.

ZENIT spoke with Vian about his first days in his role at the Vatican newspaper.

Q: You have completed 100 days directing L'Osservatore Romano. What is the biggest challenge you've faced?

Vian: The biggest challenge has been, without a doubt, the overall changes that I've had to implement in the paper since the first day of my leadership, Oct. 27, 2007. For example, making a newspaper that is simpler: a front page with the most important news, a second front page -- the last page -- generally reserved for the activities of the Pope and the Holy See; and, since the newspaper has eight pages, two and three are dedicated to international news, including Italy; four and five to culture; six and seven to religion -- Catholicism in the world, Eastern Churches -- including non-Catholics, other Christian confessions and other religions. We have cut back on photos and headlines, above all in their size. Thus, compared to the newspaper that previously had 10, 12 or even 14 pages, we have increased text by 10%.

Right away, the graphic elements of the newspaper were changed, mostly because of personal preference, and I'm not a graphics expert. Having completed 100 days, our specialists -- who are excellent -- have prepared a very refined project. The first editions of this type are being published: It has color on the first and last page, it's more graceful, with more white space, it doesn't have lines dividing the pages, the text is a bit bigger, with a different, more readable font. In general, an elegant, simple newspaper that is easy to read -- more beautiful every day.

Q: What was the biggest journalistic challenge of this period?

Vian: The decision of the Pope not to go to Rome's La Sapienza University was an important moment. Before that were the publication of the encyclical "Spe Salvi" and the period of Christmas, with the preaching of the Holy Father and all the celebrations. In any case, presenting the activity of the Pope in an adequate manner is a constant challenge.

Q: And what has been the hardest moment?

Vian: Undoubtedly, for me personally, Benedict XVI's renunciation of the visit to La Sapienza. It is my university, though as a professor I'm on leave of absence due to the responsibilities of the newspaper.

Q: What was the most gratifying experience?

Vian: The letter the Pope wrote me on the first day. It expressed great confidence and used very generous words. Less than two weeks later, he invited the vice director, Carlo Di Cicco, and myself to lunch. We saw that the Holy Father is very interested in the problems of the media. He has very keen perception. And the three or four times that I saw him in the following weeks, in public encounters, he repeated: "We're going forward. We're going forward. Very good just like this."

Q: L'Osservatore Romano embodies a long tradition as the Pope's newspaper. At the same time, it is designed as a newspaper of ideas. How do these two visions go together?

Vian: Harmoniously, because reporting on the activity of the Pope and the Holy See is not opposed to a reflection on that activity and on cultural, religious and current international issues. As a newspaper of ideas, L'Osservatore Romano reflects a lot. It deals with cultural themes and tries to go deep into them, in material which is infrequent in the international press.

Obviously, our work is also to balance this quality with a journalistic presentation -- another daily challenge. We do not publish philosophical or theological treatises, but we are aware that many of the articles we've published in these 100 days require a lot of attention from the reader, and this is normal for the newspaper.

Q: Would you like to publicly recognize the merits of the team in the progress and the changes in the newspaper?

Vian: Of course! The newspaper is the fruit of teamwork. Each one is important, and I would have to name them all. I just did it in an editorial and I'm sorry to have forgotten the typesetters and the work of the historical and photographic archives. They are very important, as are the professionals in charge of translating, the secretaries, the maintenance team and the journalists and designers. They carry out a very important work. And I have recognized the former director, Mario Agnes, who has left me a better team than the one he found when he took charge in 1984. I know this because I know well the history of the newspaper. We have a good atmosphere.

Q: The rhythm of L'Osservatore Romano seems to belie the idea that changes in the Holy See are slow.

Vian: It depends on which ones. In a newspaper, it should be that way. One must make quick decisions, although one shouldn't rush certain things either. I have reflected a lot before making decisions in the running of the newspaper and I have waited these 100 days before filling internal posts, for example.

Q: Do you receive criticism, either constructive or unjust?

Vian: There hasn't been a lot. Above all, it's come from readers accustomed to a newspaper that reported a lot about Italy -- too much in my opinion -- and about Rome. We haven't forgotten those spheres, but they have to be included in a more international perspective. They have also criticized me for our line on abortion. Some would like the newspaper to be more radical in its condemnation, but we have taken the line, of course, of the Holy See and in Italy, of the episcopal conference, which don't want useless confrontations, but rather want a cultural battle to be won so that abortion is not considered a normal practice. Definitely in this case, it has been a very unjust criticism because it cannot be doubted that L'Osservatore Romano is worried about this phenomenon. It worries, and a lot.

Q: What praise has L'Osservatore Romano received?

Vian: Before criticism, praise has been more numerous. There is greater interest in the newspaper. I haven't read significant criticism in the press -- just the opposite. One can tell that the newspaper is more interesting and less predictable.

Q: It seems that L'Osservatore Romano is always changing. Are you afraid of stagnation?

Vian: Every newspaper should fear stagnation. Stagnation would be suicide.

Q: Will you continue to be an evening newspaper? That affects the typical day of the editorial team.

Vian: Yes. It is an evening paper because we want to report immediately on the activity, addresses and appointments of the Pope, and those usually happen in the morning. We are the first to publish them. This implies a great sacrifice because our day begins at 7 a.m., with a review of news agencies and newspapers. At 8:15 we have our first meeting and an hour later, we begin to put together the newspaper. After 1:15 p.m. we are finishing pages. Ideally at 2:15 we have the next meeting to preview the following day.

Q: Do you receive specific editorial guidelines?

Vian: I haven't had many. The obvious guideline for me -- I wrote this in 1996 in the "Dizionario Storico del Papato" -- is that L'Osservatore Romano should have a greater international dimension; it's evident. And we have doubled the international information, and that on culture and religious information. Regarding special guidelines, apart from the strengthening of the international dimension, we are giving greater attention to the Eastern Churches -- also non-Catholics -- and more space to bylines from women. These are guidelines from the secretary of state, but I think they come from the Pope himself. And in general, the guideline to make a good newspaper -- and, of course -- a good-looking one: a "bel giornale."

Q: You publish daily interviews about difficult current situations, which show yourself to be, as well, an informative source ahead of ecclesial documents or activities. Do you think the dynamism of the Church is little perceived?

Vian: Yes. And an interview is a genre that allows for more immediacy. It is much easier to read than an informative article about an activity or reflection. We have also seen that they are well-liked and are used. Logically, it is also an appropriate resource to show the dynamism of the Church, which moves more that people sometimes think.

Q: L'Osservatore Romano brings the world close to Rome and Rome close to the world. Is there a border between these two dimensions? Do you have to show that a border doesn't exist? Or help to make it disappear, if indeed there is one? In what direction?

Vian: For the Bishop of Rome, no country is foreign. Founded in this is the international section that covers the entire world, including Italy. All of the world has a voice. And since Rome looks toward all of the world, also many parts of the world make contributions to the newspaper. It is a movement in both directions. Moreover, we could say that L'Osservatore Romano tries to dismantle prejudices about Rome.

Q: In its pastoral profile, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications recently announced, among its objectives, to promote a closer relationship among the Vatican media and a greater coordination of the information from the Holy See. Where does L'Osservatore Romano fit in this?

Vian: The newspaper does its part. On Dec. 20, together with Vatican Radio and the Vatican Television Center, we interviewed -- for the first time, Vatican media did it together -- French President Sarkozy, and less than two weeks later, the newspaper and the radio interviewed Father Kolvenbach, the previous superior of the Society of Jesus. We are planning to continue with this experience.

Q: In a phrase, what is your overview, all together, of these first 100 days with L'Osservatore Romano?

Vian: A good base from which to continue working.

Q: You are a historian of Christianity, a professor of patristic philosophy, and you have 30 years in the journalistic field. How are you personally living this experience with L'Osservatore Romano?

Vian: On one hand, it presupposes a lot of effort. I spend 12 or 13 hours every day on the newspaper. On the other hand, with passion and joy, because it is a formidable task that honors me. It is work that makes me enthusiastic. It is work in a team that is worth the effort.