For years Andrea Ceccherini, a suave 43-year-old Italian, has been spearheading a global initiative to boost newspaper readership among young people, educate them to value financial information and fight fake news.
In doing so, beside managing to bank over a million dollars a year in compensation, he has gained the support of an international Who’s Who. Apple CEO Tim Cook called his work “just fabulous.” The top editors of the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal signed on joining the board of a international advisory body he created “to fight fake news”, and the chairmen of the central banks of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Holland joined the board of a similar body established to educate young people to read and understand financial news.
However, my investigation, published on Friday March 16th on “Il Venerdì”, the magazine of the Italian newspaper “la Repubblica “, unearthed troubling signs that the plan to fight fake news might itself be fake news. Announced in July 2016, it hasn’t lead to any action.
Even more troublesome is the outcome of Ceccherini’s efforts to stem the drop in newspaper readership in Italy. By several independent measures it is to be assessed as an abject failure.
None of this, so far, has hindered Ceccherini’s activism. If anything he keeps rolling on, having become one of the world’s most effective celebrity aggregators. Perhaps only Davos and the Clinton Initiative have managed to attract more powerful people than his Florence-based, Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori, the non-profit he founded that distributes newspapers to Italian high schools and organizes events to celebrate his mission to help young people develop “a critical mind”.
Embellishment has always helped Ceccherini build a successful career. His 2001 professed degree in “Economy and Communication Techniques” from ISFOA University is a good example.
Registered in Belize, Albania and the State of Delaware, ISFOA is known primarily for the titles of its honorary chairman, Pietro Donato Paleologo, Emperor of the Greek Orient, King of the Hellenes, Lord of the Aegean and Head of the Holy Imperial Military Constantinian Order of St. Georges.
In Italy ISFOA is also known for being sanctioned in 2006 for marketing degrees with no official recognition or value.
Ceccherini started seeking attention as a student in a science high school just outside Florence when he discovered a little-noticed rule that asked teachers not to test students right after the weekend and made it into the battle cry of a student organization he founded. His movement was going to fight for the right not to study on weekends. Not the most noble of social causes, but enough to get him noticed. At least among young people in Florence.
In 2000, after a brief stint in conventional politics in his city, Ceccherini started a newspaper distribution project called Daily in Class in order to train young people to read the news and, through that, develop the “independent thinking that sets men free”.
Besides the intrinsic appeal of a plan to develop young people’s critical minds, he could count on the fact that his Osservatorio was throwing a lifeline to newspaper publishers who were facing an unstoppable decline in readership, especially among young people. So, three of the major publishing companies, including Il Sole 24 Ore Spa, the publisher of the leading business daily in Italy, and Corriere della Sera’s holding group RCS, enthusiastically jumped on board.
Over time, Ceccherini built a distribution system that, by his own account, managed to reach 75% of Italian high school students (the Observatory claimed a share of 80%).
In the official history volume published by the Osservatorio in 2015, the Daily in Class is described as “a unique project that in its 15 years of life managed to reverse a dramatic trend: the one that, between 1975 and 2000, saw the disappearance of over a million readers of newspapers in Italy”.
For years, Ceccherini supported such bold claims with self-generated numbers such as those reported in his web profile, where the Daily in Class project was described as involving “2,082,504 Italian students from 14 to 18 years of age”.
Those numbers, that were constantly used as evidence of his success, were suddenly taken out of the profile after Ceccherini was told about our attempt to independently measure the impact of his activities. After learning about our inquiries, the Osservatorio published a news release saying that “due to the extraordinary number of applications […] the 2017/18 school year will involve no more than a million students”. This apparently illogical decision was attributed to the desire “to ensure the quality of the project”.
In fact, data from independent sources consistently show that there has been an unmistakable trend in the opposite direction in Italy beginning right after 2000, the year the Observatory was launched.
While from the mid-1980s to 2000 the percentage of Italians who read a newspaper at least once a week remained stable, in 2001 it started going into a free fall. Among 15-17-year-olds it went from 49.4 to 24.4 percent, for the 20-24-year-olds it plummeted from 66.1 to 35.6%, and among the “graduates” of the Daily in Class project, that is young people between 25 and 34, the percentage went from 67 to 41.5 percent.
“The data show that young people in Italy do not read dailies,” says Pier Luca Santoro, a Milan-based independent media analyst with DataMediaHub. “And independently collected data on newspaper readership, both off and online, prove that the Daily in Class project has not had any impact whatsoever”.
According to Santoro, the fact is that the Osservatorio does not even know how many copies reach the students.
“One of its executives admitted to me that they have no way of knowing what happens to the newspapers once they enter the school".
There is certainly evidence that, at least in some cases, the newspapers do not reach students. After noticing unopened piles of papers for days in a row Bruno Vittoriano, a lawyer from the southern region of Apulia, wrote a letter of complaint to his daughter’s high school deputy principal.
“They told me that the papers weren’t distributed because kids would otherwise leave them all over the place making the janitors upset.”
More upset than anybody else is the president of the Italian newsstand owners guild, Giuseppe Marchica. “Many of the newspapers distributed to schools do not end up in class. Instead of being used by students, the papers are given to stores and coffee shops”, Marchica said. “We told the Osservatorio that we were willing to help them keep an eye on the project, as it is in the best interest of our associates that papers are not given to cafes that would otherwise buy them in our newsstands. I even went to Florence and suggested corrective measures in a meeting with Ceccherini. He told me that he was interested in our proposals, but he never pursued the matter”.
Professor Francesca Vannucchi, who teaches Media & Communication at the Tor Vergata University in Rome and participates in the Daily in College, the Osservatorio’s project for university students, is in a good position to assess the impact of the Daily in Class.
"In the last decade I noticed a great transformation. Ten years ago, when I first asked freshmen if they read a newspaper, at least three quarters of the class responded positively," she says. "But over the years, there has been a constant decline. This year there was only one freshman who responded yes.”
But if the impact of Ceccherini’s work is insignificant, why have Italian publishers continued to incur the costs of supporting him?
“Simple,” Santoro answered. “Publishers do it to artificially inflate their professed sales”.
In the course of my investigation I discovered that the Sole 24 Ore copies that went to schools were not reported to ADS, the Italian publishers’ certification company, as promotional or free. ADS recorded those millions of copies under “Other Sales”.
In other words, for advertising purposes, they were represented as sold despite the fact that neither the Osservatorio nor the schools paid for them.
Il Sole 24 Ore Spa, a public company, has been under investigation by the Milan prosecutor’s office for misstating or omitting information in its accounting and financial statements. As a result, the company admitted to having claimed as sold hundreds of thousands of copies provided for free to various parties that would discard them and, after firing its CEO, announced that it was eliminating all of its bogus sales. But the Daily in Class project hasn’t been touched, and the paper is still committed to paying €1.3 million a year for copies that are recorded as sold to the Observatory.
Ceccherini’s main driver seems to be name recognition, but in this multi-million euro operation, money can also be a factor.
In 2016, twenty four foundations contributed over €800,000 to the Daily in Class. In addition, there were sponsorship funds from a number of Italian corporations and revenue from publishers. All of this contributed to raise the Osservatorio’s annual revenues from about 5 million euros in 2005 to almost 7.5 in 2016. Ceccherini’s compensation has not been made public, but well-informed sources told me that in those same years it more than tripled to well over a million euros a year. Santoro’s unforgiving conclusion is that,"the initiative was born with a noble purpose, but it clearly failed. And the continuous support of an operation that does not reach its objectives makes me think that its real goal is to artificially inflate the reputation of the Observatory and the professed sales of the newspapers.”
In the course of the years Ceccherini’s talent for getting VIPs to participate in his endeavors has only grown. The lofty mission of the Osservatorio and the chance of being hosted in and guided through some of the most exquisite Renaissance palaces and sites in the world were probably good incentives for people such as the former Chairman of the European Central Bank Jean-Claude Trichet, the co-chairman of News Corp Lachlan Murdoch and his brother James, the founder and CEO of Whatsapp Jan Koum and the CEO of Time Warner Jeff Bewkes.
But Ceccherini’s secret weapons are the impressive high school students he carefully selects as audience for his celebratory events. For people who do not look into the actual impact – and numbers - of his activities, meeting hundreds of dynamic and enthusiastic high school students is the most persuasive demonstration of the success of Ceccherini’s work.
Ceccherini is also gifted in building up his network and transforming occasional guests into reputational boosters.
Last September he announced the creation of the Osservatorio’s International Advisory Board. The goal of this latest endeavor of his, he explained, is “spreading economic and financial literacy in young people.” And for that, he enlisted the chairmen of central banks of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Holland.
I asked the spokespersons of the five central bankers why they joined. The offices of the chairmen of the Banque de France and Banco de España declined to answer.
The spokesperson of Jens Weidmann, head of the German Bundesbank, told me that Ignazio Visco, chairman of the Banca d’Italia, “is supporting the initiative and encouraged President Weidmann to join.” But the spokesperson of the Italian Governor told me the exact opposite: “it wasn’t Mr. Visco who encouraged Jens Weidmann. Rather [it was] the opposite”.
Then, in late October 2017, the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, gave the most powerful public endorsement of Ceccherini’s Observatory announcing a plan to import it to the US.
“The Osservatorio’s media literacy project is just fabulous! I think that a program like Daily in Class and an organization like that could do very well in the United States. I want it in the United States”, Cook wrote in an article in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, which was accompanied by a large picture of him high-fiving Andrea Ceccherini.
But when I asked Apple what Cook is planning to do in order to establish the US version of the Observatory mentioned in the Corriere della Sera article, I discovered that the article was a translation of the speech Cook gave in English at the event organized by Ceccherini and that neither Apple nor Cook had provided it to Corriere to be published.
Apple’s spokesperson diplomatically declined to tell me know if or when the CEO intends to do anything in order to establish the Observatory in the US.
Finally, I looked into the activities of International Advisory Council, the body that is supposed to tackle the dissemination of fake news.
The July 20th 2016 press release published in the Osservatorio’s website in an almost incomprehensible English explained that its aim was “to develop together a modern and to absolute project to intrigue and excite young Americans to the quality journalism content”, and that “three giants of information Stars and Stripes have decided to join forces to coordinate a common strategy to launch the conquest of new readers. The operation control room, which will be inaugurated in January 2017 in New York, will be the International Council, on whose board, chaired by Andrea Ceccherini, will sit also personally executives Dean Baquet New York Times, The Wall Street Journal Gerard Baker and the Los Angeles Times Davan Maharaj”.
I contacted the US editors to find out more. Maharaj, who last August was fired by the Los Angeles Times, did not respond.
Baquet of the New York Times answered saying that “I haven't met with the council yet”, the adding, “there may have been a meeting without me”.
Gerard Baker, editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal, clarified that, “there have been no formal meetings so far”. He added, however, that he is “hopeful that between us we can find ways that work for all major news organizations to promote genuine, trusted news”.
They could start by looking into Andrea Ceccherini’s achievements. Genuine and trusted? Or fake news?