A day in the life of The Florentine

A talk by TF’s editor-in-chief at Palazzo Tornabuoni

Helen Farrell
May 12, 2018 - 15:12

This is a transcript of the talk given by Helen Farrell, The Florentine's editor-in-chief, at Palazzo Tornabuoni on May 9, 2018.





“A day in the life of The Florentine” is the title of this talk, but of course there is no average working day for Florence’s English language magazine, as shown in this hauntingly beautiful video that we published when it snowed this year on March 1. When something happens that Florence lovers will go crazy for, when something affects our readers, we pull up our socks, strap on our wellies and, in this case, slide around the city centre to bring the best coverage we’re capable of doing. The only common denominator is that I always, always drink my morning espresso from a moka pot before embarking on anything.



Helen Farrell talking at Palazzo Tornabuoni, May 9, 2018



Recently, my husband and I took a two-week holiday in Japan. An inspirational place with all its beauty and contradictions, those Toto Washlet loos and sincere hospitality. Before we flew East my mum sent me a book: The Little Book of Ikigai. Now I usually read voraciously, gobbling down words like I enjoy a plate of pasta. But it took me a while to absorb this one, not because it was a difficult read or the concepts were tricky to digest, but simply because it hit a note with me. This Little Book made me consider what my ikigai is, my raison d’etre, the reason why I get up in the morning and what drives me as an individual. My ikigai, I’ve discovered, is Florence. Something that we all share.





I’ve known since university that I wanted to be an editor. All of my work experience placements were at publishing houses—at Random House in London, where they pay you for your time by telling you to bring in a suitcase, then they take you into the storeroom and to fill your luggage with literature; at a political magazine in York in a medieval building with rickety steps and views over the minster. My first paid job was selling foreign book rights at a mind, body and spirit publisher in Charlotte Street in London, where we did yoga at lunchtime, then my first editorial position was with a mathematics publisher near Windsor Castle, but the company swiftly folded. My London experience over, tail between my legs, I went home to my parents in rural Cheshire and did secretarial work for a builders’ yard while sending off application after application to publishing houses. At last I received a reply from a small house based in Florence for a sales position: the interview was to be at the London Book Fair. We met, it went well, but I heard nothing for months. Out of the blue, the owner contacted me and offered me a job as an editor. And so, in July 2005, I arrived in Florence, not speaking a word of Italian or knowing anyone or really anything about the city. I still remember the stink of the city at the height of the summer when I got off the train at Santa Maria Novella.


I didn’t fall in love with Florence immediately. As a delicately skinned English rose a la Lucy Honeychurch, I’d never experienced heat and humidity that debilitating. I was lonely. I tried to recreate my poor British diet by cooking roast chicken and potatoes—in 40 degree heat. But gradually I settled in; I lived with two Calabrian girls who taught me Italian. Or rather I thought they’d taught me Italian. One evening, I went out for an aperitivo with my Scottish friend and in a darkened bar by San Lorenzo market, I saw the man who would become my husband. Giovanni quickly set the record straight: “Sai che non stai parlando italiano, vero?” (You know you’re not speaking Italian, right?”)





I stayed at that publishing house for three years, editing cookbooks for Reader’s Digest. I loved the job, the meticulousness of it, honing my eye for detail, quizzing the text, working with authors, commissioning photography, checking proofs and, after months of gestation and development, the delivery of the baby when the book arrived in its finished form on my desk. There was brief spell when I went back to the UK: my mum was ill and I needed to be close to her. Thankfully she’s fine now. I worked for 10 months at publishing giant Pearson, an amazing opportunity to have the amazing London career I’d always craved. But I missed Florence, and I missed Giovanni, and I cried every day until my mum recovered and I could come home again.


Because that’s what Florence is to me. It’s casa. It might sound trite or sweet, but by that I mean an acceptance of this city and its flaws, of which there are many – and it’s not something we speak about much in The Florentine. TF’s a good news publication by its very nature: we don’t do hard news unless it touches our readers, then we will use our platform to give a voice to the city’s international community.


When an American woman was tragically murdered in her Oltrarno apartment and the local and national papers launched on a victim smearing campaign, we published a letter entrusted exclusively to us by the woman’s best friend. For a day we changed the conversation—it’s immensely rewarding in doing something just. Similarly, when two U.S. students were allegedly raped by on-duty Carabinieri officers (I say allegedly because the legal process is still ongoing) and Mayor Nardella was reported as criticizing the American students’ behaviour, we invited the Mayor to speak on video to the international community.





While the job is a hell of a lot of fun and has its glamorous moments like speaking here tonight at Palazzo Tornabuoni, it’s also a huge responsibility. On my first day in the office at The Florentine five years ago, Brenda Dionisi, my predecessor, was hard at work breaking the news that TF has been mentioned in Dan Brown’s Inferno. Granted, the blockbuster author took a little liberty with the contents you ordinarily find on our website. On page 35, Brown writes, “What happened last night? Langdon pushed on, accessing the Web site for The Florentine, an English-language newspaper published in Florence. He scanned the headlines, breaking-news sections, and police blog, seeing articles on an apartment fire, a government embezzling scandal, and assorted incidents of petty crime.”




Grazie Dan, because that really marked the start of a whole new spotlight for our little international magazine. From that day forth—and because we’ve worked tirelessly to build up our social media reach in order to grow our audience—it’s no longer a total surprise when we receive a phone call from the BBC, CNN, the Guardian or the New York Times to find out more about a news story in Florence. In fact, when a NY Times journalist was penning a cover story about David’s weak ankles, he turned to us for on-the-ground fixing and interpreting support, mentioning The Florentine’s book From Marble to Flesh in that piece, which led to the book even being the Final Question on Jeopardy.


When the lungarno Torrigiani collapsed in the early hours, our team were the first on site and to report the news. Same too during the tornado along lungarno Colombo. And more recently, referring back to that video, when the snow fell on March 1 and our team slid around the city. Reporting these moments and running point for the world’s press is a massive responsibility, which is why, even though our team is small and the pressure to publish quickly is high, a story won’t go out unless it’s been verified and edited.


This is where you’re probably wondering, “But how is all this possible when the print mag is free”? The answer is, of course, with great difficulty. Which is why we’re so grateful to you all for supporting our work through subscriptions. Advertising is vital and we hold our own—niche publications as a rule continue to do ok on this front. But our team’s salaries come mostly from translations and copywriting and linguistic consultancy for a variety of clients who care about having professional and polished communications. We publish books, as I mentioned, we have a separate bilingual literary magazine TheFLR, and we teach about our experiences to schools. One of the most memorable moments I have is going up the San Lorenzo belltower, the one surrounded by scaffolding that’s not open to the public, in the shakiest builders’ lift you can imagine and doing a piece to camera as the entire structure swayed back and forth in the wind. I think it was one of those times I asked if I was insured!



The Florentine, cover, TF245



There’s a bit of a recurring theme when it comes to rooftops. For this month’s issue we went through the construction site of the forthcoming The Student Hotel Florence in viale Lavagnini, wearing hard hats and high-visibility tabards, to shoot the cover. There wasn’t any water in the pool, so Leo, our graphic designer filled it in… Then there was the time when we were led up onto the roof of Santa Croce ahead of the international crowdfunding campaign Crazy for Pazzi, which raised over 100,000 dollars in 33 days to restore the loggia of the Pazzi Chapel. Another memorable moment I’ll never forget—and our sincere thanks for your generous contributions to that project and the many other ambitious campaigns that we’ve launched and will continue to launch… Yes, there’s another one coming soon!


Other ways in which our editors fill their days. We attend press conferences, which are always far longer than they ever need to be. We go to exhibition and restaurant openings, we shoot videos, we write the news online when it happens and share it via social media (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter). We scout for new talents, writers and photographers; we provide encourage and feedback to our interns. On a personal note, I’ve discovered, to my absolute delight, how I love to interview people. One of the reasons I was hesitant to speak tonight when Gabrielle Taylor kindly invited me is because I’m far more of a listener than I am a talker. Earlier on this evening it was pleasure to hear some of the Members of Palazzo Tornabuoni speak about their passion and pursuits in Florence, the myriad ways in which you give back to the city and the ways in which you are always drawn back to Tuscany. What’s so wonderful about interviews—and we almost always wait to speak with people face to face instead of over the phone—is learning from others and being inspired by them. In our April Wine issue, Barone Francesco Ricasoli explained about Brolio and his quest to understand the soil and terroir of his vast millennium-old estate, for the May edition the president of Silfi Matteo Casanovi inspired us with his company’s implementation of LED lighting throughout Florence to lower energy costs for householders.





If there’s one quote our magazine strives to adhere to it’s this one by the great American essayist and playwright Arthur Miller: "A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself." Or, as Dan Brown put it, drawing from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “By the people, for the people.”


The talk was followed by a fine wine tasting kindly offered by Ruffino Wines.

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