Gifts galore and all the news that is fit to print

ROME DAYS: 'This absurd give-aways policy will end up killing the newspaper industry'

Like most journalists, I have an unmanageably large pile of old newspapers sitting in one corner of the living-room, seemingly reproducing all by themselves and threatening, like the monster cake-mix that spills over the baking tin and out of the kitchen in Woody Allen's Sleeper, to take on a sinister life of their own.

These days, though, I am rapidly building up a second, even more unmanageable pile of encyclopedia extracts, medical dictionaries, video cassettes of classic Italian films and any number of gimmicks, games and educational experiences. This is the junk - some of it welcome, some of it not - that is part and parcel of the promotion-crazy Italian press these days.

The Italian newspaper market is hurting (perhaps not as badly as the British market, but still hurting), and this extraordinary profusion of give-aways is the result. Thus, thanks to the Saturday edition of L'Unita, the party newspaper of the left-wing PDS, I now have my very own copies of Pasolini's Decameron, Antonioni's Blow Up (dubbed into Italian, but then you can't have it all) and any number of glorious comedies starring the likes of Toto, Alberto Sordi, Vittorio Gassman and Roberto Benigni.

Thanks to the more business-minded Corriere della Sera of Milan, I have seen more than I will ever need to know about the labyrinthine world of Italian personal finance, pension plans and job opportunities, and can look forward to an autumn of erudition at the hands of their in-house encyclopedia, co-sponsored by a state-owned bank, the telephone company and the railway company.

To cap them all, though, I can turn to La Repubblica, which recently lost its position as Italy's best-selling newspaper to the Corriere, and is now anxious to win it back. Three times a week I receive extracts of the Zanichelli encyclopedia and can wow my friends with such trivia as the name of the architect of those nobbly bits on the top of the Chrysler building in New York: W Van Allen.

Then on Thursdays there is the rock and music supplement Musica, while on Fridays there are more videos, this time of American films. Last week it was Woody Allen's Radio Days, this week Steven Spielberg's mega-flop Hook. La Repubblica's sister publication, the magazine L'Espresso, also has jumped on the video bandwagon with a series entitled "Forbidden Classics".

It's a curious kind of circulation battle. In Britain, newspapers have cut their prices; in Italy, the prices actually go up on days when there are goodies on offer.

L'Unita, for example, costs 6,000 lire (pounds 2.40), or four times its usual cover price, when it has a film to give away. The strategy obviously works in one sense, because circulation goes up by as much as 50 per cent, depending on the newspaper and the gimmick involved.

But it also begs the question whether people consider their purchase to be a newspaper with cheap goodies attached, or rather cheap goodies with a newspaper thrown in for free, much like the clumps of basil and parsley that stall-holders give their favourite customers at the vegetable market. L'Unita may be a sell-out on Saturdays, but its circulation has remained static the rest of the week.

"This absurd policy of give-aways will end up killing the newspaper market, with grave consequences for the freedom of the press," says Andrea Aloi, deputy editor of the satirical magazine Cuore.

A recent edition of his publication ''gave away'' a free journalist with every copy, offering to help readers with the shopping or the housework. "What will they come up with next?" Mr Aloi added. "Potatoes by the kilo? A right shoe one week and a left shoe the next?"

The real reason for the give-aways, and the circulation battle behind them, is a growing inferiority complex among newspapers towards the real force in the Italian media, television.

It is perhaps no accident that videos are the promotional vehicle of choice - they enable papers to transmit their very own images, just like Silvio Berlusconi and the state broadcaster RAI.

In one way, L'Unita and La Repubblica are directly imitating Mr Berlusconi, who has for years been using popular feature films to attract viewers to his three private stations. Mr Berlusconi's other output is largely lurid drivel to pass the time in between advertising breaks and puffs for his political ambitions.

Some mainstream newspapers already have edged down-market in an attempt to shore up declining circulation figures; they will have to be careful that promotion mania does not drag them slowly into the gutter.

ANDREW GUMBEL

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