It was 7.55am one February day in 2018 when members of an elite Italian police squad raided the Naples office of small news website. The previous day it had revealed links between elected politicians and organised groups in an illegal waste dumping racket, and its staff already at their desks looked on incredulously as the officers searched through their files.
The story sent shock waves through the political establishment and helped make fanpage.it what it is today: one of Italy’s most successful news sites.
“That day was a turning point,” said Sacha Biazzo, the journalist behind the investigation, who, with a hidden camera and the support of a former mobster, filmed meetings between members of the Neapolitan mafia and politicians.
“Since then, people realised we weren’t just a small online news and gossip outlet. They began to view us as an investigative website that could strike at the heart of political power. Readers began to deliver pizzas to our office as a gesture of gratitude for what we had done.”
Nearly four years on, and now with 67 journalists and editors, Fanpage has become a thorn in the side of politicians, mobsters and common criminals, and gets 3 million unique visitors a day.
When it was founded in the early 2000s, the outlook was completely different. “At the beginning, Fanpage was just a Facebook page containing general news and videos on a range of topics,” said Francesco Cancellato, its editor-in-chief.
“Over time, the publisher realised that we could aspire to do something different, so he started hiring journalists to write the first articles. From a Facebook page, Fanpage became a news outlet with few opinion stories and a lot of news that ranged from gossip to crime. Then we opened an investigative team […] our goal was to bring new leads to the attention of the authorities investigating corruption and criminality.”
Nicknamed Backstair, the Fanpage investigative team is staffed by undercover journalists with hidden cameras whose assignments can last up to two years. Its stated goal is to “reach the highest levels of power without succumbing to vertigo” and “plumb the depths of the darkest corners of society … filming everything, verifying it all and publicising the truth.”
In a digital age that has presented challenges to some traditional models of journalism, Fanpage is breaking some of the biggest scandals involving the church, politicians, businessmen and criminals.
In 2017 a Fanpage journalist posing as a seminarian recorded an elderly priest’s account of sexual abuse of dozens of hearing-impaired people in an institute in Verona.
This October a series of video investigations on the relationship between rightwing political parties and neofascist movements, including alleged financial contributions, was awarded the European Award for Investigative and Judicial Journalism, and led to an MEP from the far-right Brothers of Italy party being placed under investigation by the Milan prosecutor’s office. The MEP said in a statement suspending himself from the party that he had never received illegal funding and did not hold racist, antisemitic or extremist views.
Corrado Formigli, a TV host who rebroadcast the investigation on his PiazzaPulita talkshow on the TV channel La7, said Fanpage’s strength was its long-term commitment to stories. “It has created an investigation team capable of working on a project for months, if not years, which is very difficult today given that newspapers and television are often forced to deal with current affairs,” he said. “Behind Fanpage’s use of hidden cameras there is a deep, thorough work which involves creating a false identity for the undercover journalist and a patient approach to sources. The end result is extraordinary and it works great.”
Over the last four years dozens of people involved in illicit activities have been arrested after Fanpage investigations and numerous politicians have resigned. The site continues to turn a profit and has opened newsrooms in Rome and Milan.
What makes Fanpage even more remarkable is its southern Italian origins. It was founded in Naples, the biggest city in one of Europe’s most disadvantaged regions, plagued by high unemployment and enduring social and economic challenges.
“From Naples, Fanpage has not only reported on the south’s problems, it has also hired many young southern Italians, many of whom struggled to find a job in Italian mainstream journalism,” said Adriano Biondi, who started at Fanpage as an intern and is now its deputy editor.
“The south, and Naples in particular, are some of the most culturally fertile areas of Europe. There is an enormous untapped resource in terms of human capital, especially among women. If we consider education, women have higher levels than men in Italy, yet Italian women have some of the highest unemployment rates in Europe.”
The majority of Fanpage’s journalists and editors are under 30. The oldest is 44. Most of Fanpage’s unique visitors are in their 20s. Fanpage’s success is based on not just hiring young people, but also its ability to speak to them.
From the beginning it invested heavily in its social media profile. Its YouTube community equals that of La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera combined, and it is also the only Italian news website with more than 500,000 TikTok followers.
“Fanpage’s merit is that of having reached that vast demographic of young, disillusioned readers who didn’t follow the established dailies because they had no intention of reading the daily news,” said Anna Girardi, 27, the deputy political editor. “We knew that if we wanted to include them, we had to speak their language. Covering political or financial issues means having an awareness that there are readers who may have never heard some of the technical terminology.”
Cancellato said: “Our main concern is never to grow old. We mustn’t make the mistake of growing old with our readers. We have no intention of taking over La Repubblica or Corriere. We’re Fanpage, we’re something else, and our desire is to change the way news is done in Italy.”