Paper's first strike heralds end of era

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The Independent Online
It's been quite a while since the Italian Communist Party could count on the card-carrying masses to march to the newsagent's every morning and dutifully buy a copy of L'Unita, the party newspaper. Such a long time, in fact, that the Communist Party has long since changed its name and renounced communism as a political ideology.

Time has been kinder to L'Unita, which has kept going against the odds, but even this durable relic of a bygone era is now hitting the skids. On Thursday and Friday, the paper's journalists and print workers staged the first strike in their 75-year history - quite an event when one considers that the management is, or at least used to be, the great defender of the Italian working classes. The cause of their displeasure: a radical restructuring plan that would more than halve the number of editorial staff, cut costs across the board and leave behind a leaner newspaper, but not necessarily a meaner one.

The journalists complain they are being asked to make sacrifices without being told what, if anything, the future will bring. But even they acknowledge that the economics of the paper are untenable: sales have plummeted from around 150,000 at their height two years ago to just 85,000 now, and losses are expected to reach 30bn lire (around pounds 12m) by the end of the year.

Perhaps the wonder of it is that L'Unita has maintained its standing so long as one of Italy's most prominent daily titles. While party organs have either disappeared or shrunk to marginal proportions in the rest of western Europe, L'Unita has maintained a full service of political and home news, foreign affairs, business, arts and sport.

When the Communist Party mutated into the social-democrat PDS in the early 1990s, L'Unita did not wither away but provided a lively forum on the future direction of the Left.

But the newspaper's great curse has been the prestige of the editor's chair. Since it was established by Antonio Gramsci - one of modern Italy's leading men of letters, and founder of the Communist Party - the editorship has been considered a springboard for aspiring party leaders. Thus talented editors move on to higher office, leaving the paper in the lurch.

The most successful recent editor, Walter Veltroni, imbued L'Unita with real verve but Mr Veltroni is now deputy prime minister, and the paper has become distinctly turgid under his successor, Giuseppe Caldarola.

The rescue plan includes private capital, leaving the PDS with a stake of just 20 per cent. L'Unita may have survived but the days of mainstream newspapers belonging to one political party seem to be over.

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