A Big Little Newspaper Though small in both size and circulation, Italy's Il Foglio gains influence by taking on sacred cows

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Giuliano ferrara knows a good thing when he sees it, which is why his newspaper looks a lot like the Wall Street Journal, only in Italian. Il Foglio has six columns across the front, two of them with news nuggets from Italy and the world, and Journal-style grainy black-and-white drawings to illustrate the stories. Even the typeface looks the same. Ferrara's newspaper, however, ends at page four. Il Foglio means "the sheet," and that's what it is: one big sheet folded into four with no photos, no inserts, no glossy magazines. The only extravagance is a special Monday edition in pink. Yet with its incisive analysis and intelligent but controversial opinions, Il Foglio, which recently celebrated its fifth birthday, is one of the most influential papers in Italy.

"It's a simple formula," publisher and founder Ferrara explains in his central Milan office. People read the daily for the analysis, the intricate and sometimes Byzantine background to Italian politics and business. It might run a story under the headline, "The Weaknesses of the Strong Man," as it did for Cesare Romiti, a longtime titan in Italian industry, illustrating how his star has fallen in financial circles. Or the paper will describe how former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, a pillar of the Christian Democrats for half a century, is shrewdly positioning himself to be a key player in the next elections.

The writing, much like Ferrara himself, is intelligent, colorful and opinionated. "We like to be polemical and put the sacred cows on watch" he says. Day after day, Il Foglio fires salvos at what its editor calls the left's "cultural regime." When nearly all the other Italian papers were kneeling in homage before the hero of the "Clean Hands" corruption probe, Antonio Di Pietro, Il Foglio attacked him relentlessly in what Ferrara describes as "re-evaluating the judge's holiness." One of the paper's main editorial lines is against what it considers excessive powers of the Italian judiciary. "We don't like the country being in the hands of the judges," Ferrara says.

The editor was a minister without portfolio in Silvio Berlusconi's 1994 government, and Berlusconi's wife Veronica is one of the investors in Il Foglio. Yet the paper does not defer to Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia party. While the anti-judicial line would certainly be pleasing to Berlusconi, Il Foglio also carries a column by Adriano Sofri, a leftist friend of Ferrara who was convicted and sent to jail for masterminding the 1972 murder of a police chief. While Ferrara and Berlusconi, Italy's wealthiest man, are friends, Ferrara is frank about the media magnate's chances in his campaign for Prime Minister: "Berlusconi is going to win, unless he manages to beat himself."

Most of the articles are unsigned, although Ferrara normally writes the lead editorial, and his mark is all over Il Foglio. "It's a one-man band," says managing editor Christian Rocca, without a tinge of complaint. "The paper's not signed, because he is the paper." A former official in the Italian Communist Party who left to join the reform wing of the Socialists, Ferrara, 49, is a bear of a man recognizable as much for his weight as for his wit. "I'm fat, but the paper's not," he says. In fact, Il Foglio employs only a dozen full-time journalists and managed to break even after three years. The paper carries little advertising, but as a political organ receives a government subsidy of about $1.8 million a year. The circulation, 18,000, is tiny but select.

Ferrara's flair is well known in Italy, and he had considerable success as a television personality in what he labels "a kind of very sophisticated trash TV." He has a penchant for lost causes, however. He ran against "Clean Hands" Di Pietro in 1997 for a Senate seat in Tuscany even though he had no chance of winning. Ferrara says he merely wanted to cut Di Pietro's mythical stature down to size. Il Foglio also brutally criticized Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, which won an Oscar in 1998 for best foreign film. Il Foglio campaigned hard, and uselessly, writing something negative about it nearly every day for three months.

The editor recalls that when he began the paper, he got a letter from the Wall Street Journal challenging the similarities. Ferrara changed nothing, and Dow Jones, publisher of the Journal, hasn't pursued the matter. Ferrara says the two papers aren't in direct competition and describes the similarity as a form of praise. "It's a format that's pretty and it works," he says. "It's useless to look for another one." One Journal attribute Ferrara may follow is expansion-a deal for a French version is in the works. One quality he vows not to emulate is the Journal's bulk. For him, four pages are just fine.