Mario Schranz, Mark Eisenegger, and Linards Udris
Research Institute for the Public Sphere & Society, University of Zurich
This multilingual media environment is characterised by a strong public broadcaster (SRG SSR), concentrated media ownership, and a number of widely read free newspapers, which are also popular online.
This small media market is fragmented into a larger German-language, a smaller French-language, and a tiny Italian-language media market. However, most of the larger media organisations operate in more than one media market.
The broadcasting sector is dominated by the public service SRG SSR, while the private media organisations own a few small regional TV and radio channels but focus on print and online. Tamedia, Ringier, NZZ Mediengruppe, and AZ Medien are still profitable but financing journalism has becoming increasingly challenging. Advertising revenue for daily papers fell by 11% in 2016 and although digital advertising is growing it cannot nearly compensate the loss in the print sector. In 2017, only 11% of users pay for online news, which is lower than many other countries in this survey.
Media organisations have intensified their strategies of cost-cutting and cooperation. Ringier, for instance, closed the quality weekly L’Hebdo in February 2017, provoking intense criticism in French-speaking Switzerland. Tamedia also has substantially cut jobs at several news outlets (Berner Zeitung, 24heures, Tribune de Genève, SonntagsZeitung). It also has strengthened cross-organisational cooperation. For instance, Tages-Anzeiger, Tamedia’s flagship newspaper, now shares its foreign correspondent network with the German Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Players formerly operating in different fields have now become competitors in the digital market. This increases the pressure on the SRG SSR, with (private) media, political parties, and pressure groups intensifying this debate. Especially right-wing populist actors, among them Switzerland’s largest party SVP, have launched proposals to weaken the role of the SRG SSR. The referendum on the ‘No Billag’ initiative, which demands the abolition of licence fees, will be held in summer 2018. Should citizens accept it, this would not only seriously affect all smaller private regional radio and TV programmes, also partially funded by licence fees, but also the nation-wide PSB, SRG SSR, which now contributes most to a substantial and diverse media coverage with its news programmes.1 Controversy also arose when the SRG SSR, together with the state-owned telecom company Swisscom, which also offers digital TV, and Ringier launched the company Admeira in April 2016, offering a common advertising platform. While the SRG defends this move as a necessary fight against global tech companies, most private media not participating in this platform criticise it as a distortion of competition.
Still, private media are also cooperating with the SRG SSR, especially in the digital sector. News outlets of Ringier and NZZ Mediengruppe, for instance, use video material by the SRG SSR for their own newspaper internet sites. Furthermore, private media and the SRG SSR have announced they will co-finance a new media technology research center at the prestigious technical university ETH Zurich. A similar project is underway in the French-speaking part at ETH Lausanne.
The crisis in journalism also has led to new activities on the market that aim at countering the alleged decline of quality reporting. Well-known quality journalists are building a digital news platform (working title Project R), similar to the Dutch De Correspondent. In Switzerland, this is the only news project that has used a crowdfunding approach to get started. Later, the platform is supposed to be financed by subscribers and sponsors.
The survey data this year again highlight the importance of free media aimed at commuters. More than 50% say they use weekly 20 Minuten or 20 minuten, respectively, both the print and the online version. The shift to online has also enabled new players which started as email providers to become established as news aggregators (e.g. bluewin.ch or gmx.ch). The PSB, SRG SSR, along with smaller regional broadcasters, struggle to find similar audience reach online.
Smartphones remain very important devices to access news (61%) while social media appears to have peaked (perhaps temporarily), with Facebook still dominating. The role of Facebook is also discussed critically. One article in the Swiss Magazin (a weekly supplement to Tages-Anzeiger) disclosed the alleged manipulation of Facebook users by the company Cambridge Analytica, which in December 2016 triggered a significant debate in neighbouring Germany as well.
Trust in news media in Switzerland is still comparatively high even though it has declined. This decline arguably is an effect of the debate about ‘fake news’ around the presidential election in the United States, which was the topic that dominated the agendas of Swiss media according to analysis at our institute.2