Linards Udris and Mark Eisenegger
Research Institute for the Public Sphere and Society, University of Zurich
In turbulent times for Swiss media, a referendum to abolish licence fees was rejected at the polls, but intense pressure on the public service media remains. Meanwhile, and much less publicly noticed, concentration in the private media sector has intensified.
In March 2018 voters in Switzerland decisively rejected (72%) a proposal to abolish the broadcasting licence fee, which funds multi-lingual public service operator SRG SSR (SRF/RTS programmes) and partly finances 34 regional private radio and TV stations (‘No Billag’ initiative). Public debate and earlier polls had made many expect a closer outcome, and the discussion before the vote was highly emotional and polarised. According to our regular ‘Vote Monitor’ analyses, no campaign in recent years started as early and triggered as much media attention as the ‘No Billag’ initiative.1 Most media coverage was critical of the initiative, reflecting the stance of the vast majority of political parties and organisations. However, news coverage was also highly critical of the current performance of SRG SSR.
Legal actions are still outstanding against SRG SSR over its participation in Admeira, an advertising platform it founded with the state-owned telecom and cable company Swisscom and the private media company Ringier, which specialises in tabloid journalism, event marketing, and ticketing. Under pressure from political parties from the right and from private media, the public broadcaster promised reforms and announced hours after the referendum that it will start cutting costs also since it expects to generate 100m Swiss francs less in future. While cutting costs in administration etc., the SRG SSR claims it will use more resources for the production of news.
The public broadcaster is braced for further challenges with Switzerland’s largest party, the right-wing populist SVP, considering a new vote to halve the licence fee. The Swiss government will present a new law on media policy in the summer of 2018, which might direct revenue from the public broadcaster to private online media companies.
Various players in the Swiss media landscape have diverging interests, different economic difficulties, and their relationships range from competition to cooperation. This can be seen in the turbulent changes in Switzerland’s only remaining news agency SDA, which is owned by both private media and the SRG SSR and receives a small part of its budget from the national administration. In early 2018, the owners partially sold SDA to the Austrian news agency APA, and announcements to cut almost a quarter of all journalism jobs led to a widely covered strike by SDA’s staff.
As in previous years, media organisations have intensified both cost-cutting and cooperation,2 developments that markedly increase media concentration. First, starting in 2018, Tamedia, Switzerland’s largest private media company, is further homogenising its news outlets, affecting the main (regional) newspaper in each of Switzerland’s five largest cities. Except for its tabloid Le Matin and for its top free-sheet brand 20 Minuten (20 minutes), all national and international core news and sports are to be produced centrally. Only local content and comment sections will continue to be unique. Secondly, Tamedia has bought Goldbach Media, Switzerland’s largest advertising sales company, becoming the main competitor of Admeira in the ad market. Thirdly, NZZ Mediengruppe and AZ Medien announced in late 2017 that they will create a joint venture including their regional press and online news outlets.
Against this overall trend of media concentration and downsizing of journalism, new online pure players have entered the scene. Watson.ch, active since 2014, has established itself among the top online brands (14%). More recent arrivals include Republik, focused on quality reporting, that launched after a widely covered crowdfunding drive in April 2017 had generated more than 3m Swiss francs in subscriptions and donations. Similarly, in French-speaking Switzerland, Bon pour la tête was launched, intended to partially fill the gap after the highly respected news magazine L’Hebdo had been shut down by Ringier in 2017 for cost reasons. With a different concept, nau.ch started in late 2017, focusing on (domestic) breaking news, mainly spread on social media channels and on screens in regional public buses and at petrol stations. However, none of these players is yet reaching more than 3% of online users, thus not making it yet to the list of top brands, which remains relatively stable.
Switzerland still has relatively high print readership (55%) compared with many other countries, but this has fallen by 8 percentage points in three years. Viewership of TV news is also falling, compounding the problems of Swiss public broadcasters.
Comparatively high trust in news has increased, possibly reflecting the intense campaign against the proponents of the ‘No Billag’ initiative, which took place exactly during the field period, and debates about disinformation in social media. Trust in individual brands seems to correlate both with the actual quality of news and with general quality perceptions of the audience, according to our additional data.3