Story Spotlight

Are threats solutions in disguise? A report from the #IJF24

Amongst the chatter at Perugia’s International Journalism Festival 2024 it's clear a profession is under siege—but innovation abounds.

Perugia is a survivor. Since before the birth of Christ, the ancient hilltop city has weathered merciless sieges that have all but destroyed it—first in 40 B.C., then throughout the 6th century by the Byzantines and the Goths. Many times, it was almost wiped into irrelevance.

Yet defiant on its hill, still it stands. Meticulously crafted, labyrinthine and with a panoramic perspective, you might consider the central Italian city a curious choice for a festival exploring contemporary journalism. But then again, maybe not. 

For a week each spring, its streets swarm with media professionals from all over the world. Veteran war correspondents jostle with TikTok stars and data scholars; nonprofit startups line up at the bar with giants of legacy media; local specialists eye-up internationals; founders court funders. All seem palpably keen to listen to, and learn from, each other. Welcome to the International Journalism Festival (IJF), the 19th of which began on 17th April—a celebration and strategy session of journalism in all its evolving forms. 

Queues in Perugia await an IJF panel.

The atmosphere is, as ever, visibly buoyant—thanks to the balm of Umbrian scenery, Perugia’s famous chocolate, plus caffeine (or wine) aplenty. But a glance at the itinerary of talks and side events this year reveal a profession weathering turbulent change. Many journalists might describe the industry’s recent history as an uphill struggle, a metaphor with acute local resonance as any breathless pedestrian on Perugia’s streets will tell you. 

The sharp edges of this poke from the panellist programme, where nuances of framing reveal if these changes, revolutions, evolutions are seen as an opportunity—or a threat. Can journalism survive AI? fearfully asks one. How to tame neural networks in AI models, helpfully offers another. 

Predictably, in a year that has seen the unprecedented expansion of generative pre-trained transformer (GPT) technology and its use in everything from memes to broadcast news, AI was a critical point of discussion. Both the concerned and the excited listened and talked through the ethical and professional implications of the technology in elections, newsroom workflows and freelance livelihoods. Other subjects followed the stormclouds whipping the world like those above the city rooftops: the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, and their implications for journalist safety and balanced reporting. The control of misinformation and disinformation amidst a coming season of elections —the results of which are certain to have global impact. And the ever-present task of enticing eyeballs to diligently-sourced news in a world where competing distractions are more abundant—and insidious—than ever. 

Panellists including foreign correspondents and photojournalists discuss the importance of war reporting.
Journalists mingle at climateXchange's drinks reception at the IJF, one of many similar networking events.
The IJF at Perugia is now in its 19th year.

The broad church of panels on offer is a virtue of the IJF, with the all-important side events and mixers timetabled too. Were an attendee to be critical, more thematic structure to the week with fewer, bigger events might focus conversation more. Queues, too, seemed another topic on everyone's mind—though in many cases, these were simply further opportunities to network.

Climate has a profile here, but it’s more subtle, buried in amongst the sessions: the subject we all know we can’t avoid, but are sometimes at a loss as to how to cover in a way that trips the trope. This again, is perhaps both a symptom of the problem and a route to the solution. 

(Related: Explore climateXchange's Global Journalism Insights series.)

For years ‘Climate JournalismTM’ has been a victim of its own weighty worth. Rightly woven into discussions with solemn nods of respect to its desperate importance—whilst rarely holding the spotlight when it comes to the conversation around holding audience attention and that all-important impact. And not, as a result, attracting the critical financial backing sustainable editorial increasingly demands of newsrooms of al sizes. Its status as a lightning rod for ‘doom’ reporting, which in the age of news avoidance—another topic gaining air at the IJF24—makes it a tough sell. It’s too big. Too complicated. Why should I read about it when there’s nothing I can do? 

Climate is the subject we all know we can’t avoid, but are sometimes at a loss as to how to cover in a way that trips the trope.

In a landscape where news is changing shape, local, regional and global outlets must cover climate more than ever to mount awareness. We know this. Voices impacted by conditions and situations in their local areas must find their platform: but in this so-called uphill struggle simply to survive, it's difficult to justify covering a subject an audience might avoid. There is a way, though.

At a panel at the IJF discussing the social engagement of Gen Z, one seemingly elementary sentiment: find what your audience likes, and frame content around an important issue that plays to that.

Bureau of Investigative Journalism's Rozina Breen speaks on an IJF panel (left); lit windows in the buildings of Perugia's old town (right.)

was born to help newsrooms around the world find new ways to cover what is the biggest story none of us want to read—in a way people actually do want to read. Toolbox content they find useful. Daily augmentations that make life healthier and more rewarding, for consumers as well as the planet. To encourage a climate consciousness that is as subtle as a foundation, and just as critial. To understand that climate stories don’t simply belong in a box marked ‘climate’—but are a part of daily DNA. A lens through which everything can be viewed,rather than something which must be squinted at by choice.  

Perhaps the time approaches when the need for more, different climate journalism is as urgent a talking point as AI. When, like AI, it will soon become so critical in public consciousness it’s a pressing factor in many wider discussions, not simply the subject of a few. More panels would be welcome, for sure: clinics on reframing climate science for lay audiences, of finding accessible ways into the subject that makes actions achievable, and shapes attitudes and responsibilities amongst its consumers with an inspiring blueprint, not a sledgehammer. Content that reveals how entwined this subject is with so much we all engage with day-to-day. And—yes—AI can help us here, too. A lot. 

Even in Umbria the effects of climate change are being felt, with changing patterns of weather affecting the health of the region's famous olive trees.

Climate change is the defining challenge of our time, and it’s a tanker: slow, yes. But huge, unfathomably destructive and difficult to reverse without a unified effort. Events like the IJF are critical to seed the networks for this to happen. Face-to-face discussion is the most persuasive lever we have to prompt change. But a better outcome would be for us all to help change the trajectory of the media machine from the inside, now.    

Journalism has endured—and capitalised—on many sieges of its own since its inception. It’s surprised us all with its ingenuity and its ability to adapt both to internal and external forces. And guess what: the birth of commercial media was not the end of editorial integrity. The rise of digital was not the death of print. The explosion of social media did not destroy traditional journalism. With collaboration and innovation the key to salvation, all continue to represent both challenges, and opportunities. Clear within the walls of Perugia this year, as ever in journalism, it’s all about the framing.  

The IJF 2025 takes place in Perugia 9-13 April 2025. ClimateXchange's upcoming webinar discusses sustainable news products to help climate editorial pay its way: register here.

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