Linards Udris and Mark Eisenegger
Research Institute for the Public Sphere and Society, Department of Communication and Media Research, University of Zurich
The media industry has become increasingly focused on cost-cutting and consolidation in this small and linguistically segmented news market. These trends are further reducing the diversity of outlets and opinions – problematic in an election year, and for Switzerland’s direct-democratic system in general.
Media organisations have continued to bear down on costs in the face of stiffening economic headwinds – with centralised newsrooms becoming standard. A new joint venture (CH Media) is merging all content, except regional news, for its outlets such as Luzerner Zeitung and Aargauer Zeitung. The company announced in 2018 it would cut 20% of its journalists in the next few years. In a similar move, Tamedia, Switzerland’s largest private media company, installed central newsrooms for its German-speaking and French-speaking outlets such as Tages-Anzeiger, 24heures, and Basler Zeitung, a traditional newspaper it had only recently bought from Christoph Blocher, a well-known right-wing politician. Only Tamedia’s 20 Minuten and 20 minutes, Switzerland’s largest online and offline brands (offering tabloid-like journalism), have kept their own newsrooms. To cut costs, publishers have given up parts of print production in 2018; Tamedia’s Le Matin, a traditional and popular tabloid, and Ringier’s Blick am Abend, a widely circulated free-sheet, have become online-only outlets.
These mergers and centralised newsrooms have reduced the diversity of content. Most international and domestic political news coverage, including commentary, is increasingly shared among outlets belonging to the same company. Taking three different news outlets of Tamedia as an example, 68% of political commentary is now identical.1 This shrinking diversity is a problem in a country where the diversity of opinions is institutionally needed, since several referendums take place each year.
Worries about diversity also affect the multi-lingual public service broadcaster SRG SSR (including SRF and RTS), which announced in 2018 it would centralise more resources in its main studio in Zurich at the expense of Bern, where its prestigious radio studio would be given up. Similar ideas are being tested in French-speaking Switzerland. Politicians have launched a bid in Parliament to stop the moves. The SRG SSR, which won a widely debated referendum in early 2018 on the abolition of the licence fee, is under political pressure again.
At the same time, the SRG SSR and private media organisations are taking a few steps to increase co-operation. While SRG SSR is leaving the advertising platform Admeira, which had been seen as a threat by some private operators, it is joining with private media in a national radio player app. They are also planning a ‘log-in alliance’ which would allow sharing of user data for targeted advertising. Swiss media have come to identify global tech companies as the cause of their problems, even as they offer even more content on social platforms, including those which had been neglected (20 Minuten, for example, is planning a WhatsApp newsletter). Thus, as in the EU, Swiss publishers are seeking financial compensation from Google and others through new copyright laws.
The financial situation for publishers remains difficult, not least because more companies, most notably Switzerland’s largest telecom provider, have stopped advertising in newspapers completely. Tamedia, for instance, is still profitable but mainly because of businesses other than news. While it claims increasing digital news subscriptions (e.g. day passes), the data from this year’s survey again show that the number of Swiss willing to pay for online news remains very low (11%). The ‘news-deprived’ now constitute the largest (36%) and fastest-growing group, where if people consume content at all, it tends to be from more popular sources and mainly accessed via social media.2
Media companies are experimenting with new formats. Tamedia is testing ‘robo-journalism’ on referendum results, producing hundreds of articles based on polls which are customised for each voting district. Ringier has recently hired a well-known political news anchorman to enhance its efforts in producing video on its widely used websites, and Neue Zürcher Zeitung works with a newsletter tailored for audiences in neighbouring Germany. It increasingly offers its articles in audio, as does the digital-only Republik.
Conditions for new players remain difficult. Watson.ch (launched in 2014) has found an audience but is not profitable, and new players like crowdfunded Republik still are niche products. Thus, success for planned start-ups in French-speaking Switzerland like Heidi News (partially supported by Google’s News Initiative) is by no means guaranteed.
Trust this year is back to the same level as in 2017, with higher trust last year probably resulting from the strong and highly visible counter-reactions against the referendum proposal to prohibit licence fees. Interestingly, however, trust in individual brands remains as high as in 2018.