Much like his grandfather Gianni Agnelli, who combined Rockefeller wealth with Kennedy glamour, John Elkann has an intuitive sense that a successful businessman has a strong command of media. Though his day job is chairman of Fiat Chrysler (he was appointed to the board when he was 22), as well as chairman of Ferrari, Elkann has always had a keen interest in the press. Until a few years ago, he held a seat on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp board, and in 2015 he acquired a majority stake in The Economist. He’s a regular attendee at Allen & Co.’s Sun Valley media-and-tech conference, and at the annual “Google Camp,” in Sicily. For many years, he held a seat (inherited from his grandfather) on the board of Rizzoli Corriere della Sera (RCS). When he hosted the 150th-anniversary celebration of the Turin-based newspaper La Stampa (which his family has owned since 1926) in 2017, Jeff Bezos spoke on a panel about the “Future of Newspapers,” debating with Elkann.
So it should have come as no surprise to Italians when the 44-year-old revealed in December that he had, through Exor, the Agnelli family’s $163-billion-in-revenue publicly traded company, put down more than $225 million to take control of Italy’s largest publisher, Gedi. Yes, the Agnelli fortune was built on Fiat, but it has always believed in balancing tradition with innovation. Thus it boasts a global portfolio that balances those two values—and spans luxury and industry, including the soccer team Juventus, a major art collection donated in part to the city of Turin, and the Giovanni Agnelli Foundation, which conducts social-policy research. In acquiring Gedi, Elkann wasn’t just aligning innovation and tradition; he was also gaining control of two of Italy’s most influential newspapers: the Rome-based, liberal-leaning La Repubblica, and the centrist, Turin-based La Stampa, which, after a few years, was coming back into the family fold. (Full disclosure, I am an occasional columnist for La Repubblica.)
What’s been most surprising, however, is how quickly he has ruffled feathers among the Italian intelligentsia who want to know what, exactly, he’s up to. Is he helping to give financial stability to local journalism—something U.S. papers, from The Denver Post to the Chicago Tribune, might envy—as publishers such as Gannett and McClatchy get acquired and gutted by hedge funds? Or is he, the European business community wonders, pulling a Bezos—using his billions to build “soft influence” by gaining control of a media megaphone?
Much like his grandfather Gianni Agnelli, who combined Rockefeller wealth with Kennedy glamour, John Elkann has an intuitive sense that a successful businessman has a strong command of media.
In addition to the newspapers, the portfolio of Gedi (which Elkann’s great-uncle Carlo Caracciolo originally acquired in 1955) includes 13 local papers, a magazine, a couple of Internet sites (including the Italian edition of Politico), three radio stations, and an advertising-distribution company.
Elkann, a realist, told me that he warned his fellow board members that it was “a contrarian acquisition, given the headwinds facing the newspaper industry.” But, he believes, “quality journalism will continue to attract and grow digital paying readers as it is central to the good functioning of a healthy democracy.”
Elkann, whose family calls him “Jaki,” has long seemed a bit contrarian himself, at least for an Agnelli grandson. Tall and slim, he is the head of one of Italy’s great dynasties and the son of Margherita Agnelli and Alain Elkann, a French-Italian writer. Yet, he was born in New York, raised in Britain, Brazil, and Paris, and earned a degree in engineering. While he shares Gianni’s sense of adventure—in January he competed as a helmsman in Cape2Rio, the 3,600-mile yacht race across the Atlantic from South Africa to Brazil—he doesn’t gravitate toward the society pages. Rather than live in Rome or New York, he and his wife, Lavinia, who is a descendant of one of Italy’s oldest families, the Borromeos, live quietly with their two sons and daughter in the hills of Turin in a large traditional country home surrounded by trees and gardens that is about a hundred yards from Villa Frescot, the renowned residence of his grandfather and his beloved grandmother, Marella.
But while Elkann comes from an established family, he has also shown himself through the years—especially in how he has repositioned Fiat Chrysler—as an ambitious businessman who savors a challenge. For 30 years, many Italian newspapers have been led by editors who, in their youth, were to the left of even the Communist Party. What’s more, few of them had foreign-bureau experience, let alone an understanding of the English language. Elkann, an internationalist who speaks four languages, decided that the time had come for Italian news coverage and business to open up, go fully digital—and join the 21st century.
On the day he became chairman of GEDI last spring, Elkann, who can seem quiet and reserved on the surface, pounced: he sacked four top editors, most notably at La Repubblica, where he installed Maurizio Molinari, 55, as editor in chief. Elkann’s editorial changes upset some intellectuals and stunned journalists, with a few leaving the paper in protest. But some embraced the change, such as the longtime editor Ezio Mauro and Eugenio Scalfari, the paper’s revered 96-year-old co-founder. When Molinari placed his Sunday column on the front page, next to the stand-alone column still published weekly by Scalfari, the old man did not question the move.
Tall and slim, he is the head of one of Italy’s great dynasties.
Elkann would not be the first person to get into media thinking he has “it”—how to make money—figured out. Yet many are skeptical of his vision. He has promised to restore profitability to the struggling GEDI group by investing in digital, marketing, and multi-media, as well as radio and diversified businesses. For this he’s brought in a new C.E.O., Maurizio Scanavino, who proved himself a few years ago by successfully merging the ownership of a local newspaper and a national one, the Genoa daily Il Secolo XIX with La Stampa.
As Elkann told me, “Exor’s investment in GEDI represents the convergence of two family histories. Knowing where you are coming from does not interfere with evolution and building a different future. Innovation and tradition can fit perfectly well together.”
Perhaps. But for all Elkann’s self-assurance and grounding in the media industry, Exor’s stockholders have questions. Like: Beyond gaining Elkann influence, can a “contrarian investment” in the news business actually be profitable?
“GEDI is profitable today,” Elkann says firmly. “And will be more profitable in the future if it increases its digital presence. We are seeing encouraging signs, like the doubling of digital subscriptions in the past six months and high retention rates. In addition, we’ve launched new editorial products that are being well received and increasing readership and profitability.”
Elkann’s position intrigues global-media players such as Robert Thomson, C.E.O. of News Corp: “Re-structuring and modernizing a media business in the current environment is a challenge,” Thomson told me on the phone. “We have seen how difficult it has been at the regional and local levels here in the United States, but if anybody can make it work in Italy, that is John. He has vision with no illusion, a great passion for Italy, a set of principles rooted in tradition, which helps him being an innovator, and has a great business sense about opportunities.”
And as Mark Thompson, the former C.E.O. of The New York Times, who closed the gap between print and digital, said to me, “I wish John well. There is real energy and vision behind his attempt to revive the Italian press. In the U.S., we’ve seen consolidation at the local and regional level with a thesis of cost reduction rather than digital transformation. Unfortunately, the result of that cost cutting has been the decimation of many American newsrooms, while the refusal to invest sufficiently in digital means almost no one is building a viable alternative for when print finally fails. John’s experiment will be closely watched here.”
The bigger question is: How does the Gedi acquisition affect the Agnelli business—and the family fortune—going forward? Will it add to the bottom line or be a drag on it? In his nearly 10 years at the helm of Exor, Elkann, as Thompson observed, has displayed a knack for seeing opportunities. He grew the pre-coronavirus value of Exor 10-fold, in part by diversifying its holdings, not just business-wise but also geographically, and making the company less E.U.-focused. And in the past several months he has been reorganizing strategically. Last December, he signed a binding agreement to merge Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot in a 50-50 split. If approved by E.U. regulators, it will create the world’s third-largest car-maker by revenue, with estimated joint sales of $190 billion. He also announced he would split CNH Industrial, a capital-goods producer with $28 billion in sales, in two. And in May he refused to renegotiate a “COVID-19” discount for the $9 billion sale of PartnerRe to French insurer Covéa and kept the company.
Still, merging multi-national automakers might be easier than changing the culture at Italian newspapers. And if U.S. papers have been slow to innovate, Italian newspapers have been even slower. Elkann asked his new C.E.O. to adopt production changes that are standard at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as strong press unions have so far made it difficult to fully merge the digital and print efforts.
It’s clear Elkann intends to draw the traditional Italian media into the 21st century, but his peers are also counting on him to lead the European battle against Facebook and Google, and force the tech giants to pay media companies for the content they put on their platforms. They’re also relying on Elkann to leverage Fiat Chrysler’s partnership with Google to develop driverless cars: Fiat Chrysler recently selected Google’s Waymo driverless technology as its exclusive partner in the pursuit of self-driving vehicles.
In his battle with Google and Facebook, Elkann has a strong partner in Carlo Perrone, a close friend of the family and an investor and vice-chairman of GEDI. Last year as president of the European Newspaper Publisher Association, he won a battle to get a European directive to force Google and Facebook to recognize copyright payments to newspaper publishers. He believes Elkann’s flair for innovation is needed at this moment, as does Robert Thomson. “John has played a role globally, being involved in discussions about the need for a digital operation to recognize a premium for premium journalism,” said Thomson. “And because of his commitment to deliver that message, he has been one of the most influential figures to help change the attitude of Google and Facebook. He deserves enormous credit for having played that key role.”
Time will tell, however, if it will be easier for Elkann to take on Mark Zuckerberg than to modernize Italian newsrooms.
Mario Calvo-Platero is an Italian writer. He lives in New York City