Credit: Courtesy of Will Media. From left to right, the Will Meets team: Paola Colombo, Alessandro Tommasi (CEO and co-founder), Paolo Bovio, Bianca Del Balzo, Luna Esposito.

Launching in January 2020 was unfortunate timing for Will Media, an alternative, digital-first publication for readers tired of the heavily politicised coverage in the Italian news landscape.

According to the recent Reuters Digital News Report 2021, just 40 per cent of Italians trust the news (though that number is up from previous years). The report explains that the "most trusted brands are generally those that are known for lower levels of political partisanship. Least trusted are outlets with a pronounced partisan bias."

Last year, the publication wanted to send reporters out into all the nooks and crannies of the country to build readers' trust and engage more closely with them. But the pandemic had other ideas.

In June 2021, it finally got to rekindle those plans, launching Will Meets, a 20-stop tour of Italy where five reporters visit a rural and urban destination in each region of Italy.

Will is based in Milan, which is not only a large metropolitan area but it is also in the north of Italy, the most industrialised and wealthiest part of the country. A key topic it is focusing on is the north-south divide.

But the tour is also a chance to gut-check if readers care about the stories the team are producing, or have different wants and needs. The topics the reporters want to explore include the environment, public policy, innovation and country infrastructure.

"We wanted to meet people outside the Milanese bubble and try to talk with them about the issues we are dealing with every day at Will Media," explains Francesco Zaffarano, editor-in-chief of the publication. Before returning to his native Italy, he worked at The Economist and The Telegraph in social media roles, and he was also one of the organisers of the Hacks/Hackers events for media and tech professionals in London.

Courtesy of Will Media

A Will Meets community meeting in Reggio Emilia. The orange cube is a microphone used to record the conversations and also signified it was your turn to talk

"The idea of talking about infrastructure with just the perspective of someone from Milan makes no sense at all. We need to take that extra step to try and fill that gap of knowledge."

In rural areas, it works with the polling agency YouTrend to organise balanced and representative focus groups. YouTrend will also assist in analysing the findings and producing a report after the tour has concluded.

In more urban areas, the reporters work with local activists to set up activities around local issues, like cleaning up beaches and streets or going to see deprived areas.

"We wanted to avoid parachuting into local communities," he continues, adding that scheduling events with activists ahead of time helps to defuse any issues.

"We don't want to go there and say 'We’re from the big city and we’re going to solve your problems, just trust us' - the people on the ground know better than we do what is going on there and what they want to talk about. What we want to do is listen and come back with a deeper understanding of those issues."

The whole initiative is supported by the European Parliament as part of its Conference on the Future of Europe, which Zaffarano confirmed does not have any influence on the editorial output and is not considered a form of political influence.

Will has already started to publish a series of episodes for its YouTube channel with a highlights reel from the various stops, meetings and some behind-the-scenes work.

"Success looks like an evening meeting with 20 young people from southern regions, who are out of the strongholds of our community," he says.

"Those 20 people spend a Friday evening, instead of being with their friends, being with complete strangers to talk about infrastructure in the regions or what the governments should do to improve public transport.

"That's the opposite of what the generation I belong to is normally described as. We are showing there is something completely different from people uninterested and uninvolved with what is going on in politics.

"Those young people perfectly know [what is going on], but they don't want to be informed in the way we thought they did 30 or 40 years ago, and the reaction we are seeing and experiencing is a testament to this."

The startup with a fresh take on branded content

Since launching at the start of 2020, Will Media has more than 1m followers across Facebook and Instagram, with 18-24 year-olds accounting for a third on Instagram and a quarter on Facebook. It also has a string of podcast shows with a combined 7.5m downloads, its biggest demographic there being 23-27 year-olds. Its newsletter Loop also has more than 18k subscribers.

It is funded purely through branded content, working with organisations like Nike, UNESCO, and the German Embassy in Rome to stimulate conversations around company values, so long as they are aligned with theirs in terms of sustainability and social justice.

"We think there is a lot of knowledge we should use," Zaffarano explains. "There are people working for companies in the fashion or food industry, and they probably know a lot about what we can actually do to make those industries more sustainable.

"We are very strict, we tell our clients from the beginning 'If you want to advertise your latest pair of trousers, I’m sorry this is not the place for you'. We are then in a position where we are strong enough, and the relationship is strong enough, to proceed."

The editorial staff also write branded content, so there are no debriefs with partners about the tone of voice. In other words, it is an article they could otherwise publish, the only difference is there is a paid partnership on top because a company chose to support the work.

"It’s a completely different idea of what branded content should be: we don't start with what the client wants, we start with what we want to tell our audience every day and the client follows."

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