Online Journalism Atlas: online journalism in Switzerland

In the second part of the Online Journalism Atlas, Nico Luchsinger looks at how the news industry in Switzerland is experimenting with new media – and how new media is experimenting with news. Got any information about your own country’s online journalism? Add it here.

In late August this year [2007], the Swiss Publisher’s Association (VSP) issued a statement. In it, the publishers attacked the Google News service, claiming that Google were infringing copyrights with the news aggregation service, and announced plans to launch their own news portal to rival the internet giant. A few weeks later, VSP president Hanspeter Lebrument was quoted as saying that “Google is afraid of us. If we’re not around anymore, Google has no content to offer.”

The reaction in the Swiss blogosphere to the VSP’s plans ranged from astonishment to desperation. “It is highly unlikely that Google will listen to the claims of Swiss publishers”, wrote media blogger Andreas Goeldi. (This view was confirmed a few months later when Google Switzerland boss Andreas Schoenenberger politely but firmly rejected the VSP’s accusations.)

Cautious and slow

The short episode is typical of the current situation in Swiss online journalism. Newspaper publishers view the internet rather as a threat than as a possibility. A small community of (media) bloggers thinks to know better, but is hardly ever listened to. The publishers (who, in Switzerland as much as anywhere else in the world, have never been the spearheads of innovation) have become more and more insecure as their core business – printing newspaper – is slowly eroding.

After a promising start in the mid-nineties, innovation on the web from traditional newspapers has been slow. “What the newspapers do online is mostly boring. There is no readiness to assume a risk or launch an experiment”, says Martin Hitz, who writes the influential media blog Medienspiegel.

The country’s best-selling newspaper, Blick, runs a rather uninteresting website that features, as the paper itself, mostly sensationalist stories with a few web 2.0 features such as commenting and rating of articles.

The Zurich-based Tages-Anzeiger, which from time to time calls itself “Switzerland’s best-selling quality newspaper”, has a similarly uninspiring presence on the web. Even after a recent redesign, the site looks like a relic from the late nineties. The content consists of selected articles from today’s print edition, a lot of hardly edited news agency infos, and some blogs, which are marginalised on the site and, it seems, not widely read.

The website of the also-Zurich-based Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), which has a lower circulation than the Tages-Anzeiger but bigger international renown, is far more popular (full disclosure: I used to be an editor for NZZ Online and am now a freelance contributor to the print edition). It underwent a complete redesign in July, which allowed for more flexibility in online publishing, but got mixed design and usability reviews. The redesign allowed readers to comment on every story, although comments are moderated, and it often takes several hours until they are approved.

The NZZ has also started to experiment with “blogs” from some of its foreign correspondents. While the quality of this content is excellent, the mere fact that the blogs do not have a feed renders the experiment potentially irrelevant. The NZZ runs also two independent blogging platforms (with feeds): on NZZvotum politicians from all parties write about their goals, and on NZZcampus, students from different universities blog about their life.

Like the Tages-Anzeiger and most other Swiss newspapers, the NZZ only puts part of its print edition online, and only for a limited time. “I just don’t understand why they are not giving away all their content online for free”, says media blogger Martin Hitz. “How do they expect to establish their brands online?” At least, the Tages-Anzeiger and, to a lesser extent, the NZZ have now begun to implement a cautious online-first strategy, where some articles from the forthcoming print edition are published first online.

Let’s print more free dailies

One of the reasons that the traditional daily newspapers have been under pressure are the free dailies. The biggest of them, 20 Minuten (which is, as the Tages-Anzeiger, owned by the Tamedia Group), is now by far the most-read newspaper in the country. A year ago, the Ringier media group (which owns Blick), launched the free daily heute, which is published in the afternoon.

In September 2007, media entrepreneur Sacha Wigdorovits, who was once editor-in-chief of Blick, launched yet another free daily, called .ch. This prompted the Tamedia Group to launch, in December, its second free daily News to compete with .ch. Together with the Le Matin bleu, a free daily published in the French-speaking part of the country, the estimated circulation of all the free dailies amounts to more than two million – in a country with a population of seven million. Most observers agree that this situation will not be sustainable, and that in the long run, only one of the free dailies will be able to survive.

All the free dailies run websites, with 20 Minuten being by far the most successful. With an online staff of about 30 people (which heavily exceeds the online staff of all other newspapers), it quickly became one of the most-visited websites in Switzerland. It features a lot of multimedia content and community options.

20 Minuten also tries to link its print edition to additional content on its website, and regularly prints excerpts from user discussions in its online forums. Its large editorial staff allows 20 Minuten to produce a lot of content for online-only use.

On the other side of the Röschtigraben

The picture gets slightly more interesting when one looks on the other site of the Röschtigraben – the line that divides the German- and French-speaking parts of the country. The Tribune de Genève hosts a blogging platform for its readers, whose blogs are prominently featured on the Tribune’s website as well as in the printed paper. It also publishes some podcasts. Le Matin, which like the Tribune is owned by the Edipresse Group, has at least a decently designed webpage, vaguely reminiscent of the Guardian’s website.

The clear front-runner in online journalism in Switzerland is the Ringier-owned weekly magazine L’Hebdo. It won much praise when, during the riots in French banlieues in 2005, it started the Bondyblog, where reporters wrote directly from the banlieues. The blog still exists, although it is now operated by a couple of young citizen journalists in France, and L’Hebdo only remains a partner to the blog.

More recently, L’Hebdo started Blog & Breakfast to cover the Swiss national elections which took place on October 21. Hebdo reporters visited candidates for the national parliament and stayed at their place for one night. The blog featured a lot of video and photo content. All posts where geotagged and could be browsed via an interactive map.

It is worth mentioning shortly the homepages of the magazines published by the Tages-Anzeiger and the NZZ: The Magazin, a weekly supplement to the Tages-Anzeiger, has recently redesigned its website. The new site is based on wiki technology, but readers can so far only collaborate by writing comments on the articles (which, at least, are all published in their entirety at the same time as in the print edition). NZZ Folio, which is each month devoted to one specific subject, can also be accessed online, and is additionally published as a downloadable audio version.

Too small a market?

Media blogger Martin Hitz sees the main reason for the slow online innovation in Switzerland in the relatively small market size. “In Germany, you can reach potentially millions with a new online offer, even if it is devoted to a very specific subject. Online editors in Switzerland very often just lack the resources to be innovative”, he says. There are, however, signs that some things will change in Swiss online journalism, although at a slow pace.

The Tamedia group announced that it will, in addition to their new free daily News, launch a new online portal in the first quarter of 2008. The portal, which will feature content from the Tages-Anzeiger, the Berner Zeitung and the Basler Zeitung, will have a “moderate online-first strategy” (whatever that means).

The website of Facts, a political weekly magazine owned also by Tamedia that has ceased publication this summer, was recently reborn as FACTS 2.0, which aggregates content from Swiss and German news sites and blogs, and lets users vote and comment on the stories. The business model of the site, said its boss Chris Luescher recently at a conference, is to sell the discussions of its users on a particular article back to the original source. While there is a lot of skepticism on whether this idea can work, it is at least proof of some innovation taking place.

The not-so-influential blogosphere

The gap in online journalism left by traditional media has so far not been filled by newcomers, let alone bloggers. While the Swiss blogosphere becomes more and more connected, it remains rather small (as the country itself) and without much influence on mainstream opinion. This is – again – at least in part due to the fact that the size of the Swiss market makes it virtually impossible to blog professionally.

The very notable exception is Blogwerk, an online-only publisher which pays its authors for blogging. Blogwerk currently publishes four blogs devoted to media, gadgets, photography and productivity, with more to follow soon. All the sites experience strong growth, wrote its founder and CEO Peter Hogenkamp in October when he announced that Blogwerk had raised some 300’000 Swiss francs (180’000 Euro) in additional venture capital. The Blogwerk blogs, however, are targeted not only at a Swiss, but at a German-speaking audience.

Another example is the blog Krusenstern which focuses on Russia and the Ukraine. While its author, the journalist Juerg Vollmer, does not work full time for his blog, the quality of his entries is exceptionally high and has led to the blog being widely read throughout German-speaking countries.

The Swiss mainstream media, meanwhile, does not ignore blogs completely. In fact, citation of blogs in Swiss print media has increased significantly over the last few years, writes political science student Sarah Genner in her recently completed master thesis on “Blogs and Democracy”. However, the quoted blogs tend to be written by people who are already part of the public discussion, such as politicans and journalists (the blog that was quoted most often was the one of Swiss government member Moritz Leuenberger). The blogs, concludes Genner, tend to amplify voices that have already been heard before rather than broadening the discussion.

Conclusion

Switzerland’s online media landscape suffers from a lack of innovation. This is partially due to the limited resources that traditional media can devote to online projects, but also due to the mindset of many Swiss publishers which continue to see the internet as a threat (or, even worse, as a temporary hype). Consequently, notes media blogger Martin Hitz, online journalists are often treated as “second-class editors”. Swiss bloggers remain a small group, largely occupied with themselves, with only a few blogs having access to a broader audience. And while there are some online journalism projects worth watching closely, Switzerland is, even within Europe, still lagging several years behind.

This article is available as a wiki to be updated, corrected, or added to. Please help improve it if you can.

Nico Luchsinger, 25, is a history student and freelance journalist based in Zurich. He blogs at Hundertfünfzig Worte.

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9 thoughts on “Online Journalism Atlas: online journalism in Switzerland

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  2. Sarah

    Great article! The conclusion contradicts the prediction by the “Economist” concerning the Swiss political blogosphere: “To watch: blogocracy.” I agree that Switzerland is far from being a “blogocracy” but are we really lagging several years behind? Isn’t Switzerland – as usual – a slow, but effective adopter of innovation?

    Reply
  3. Nico Luchsinger

    Thanks for the comment, Sarah! And, yes, maybe it is a little bit exaggerated to say that we are “lagging several years behind”. On the other hand, I don’t agree that Switzerland is a slow adopter of innovation. There has been a lot of innovation coming from Switzerland in many different areas – why not in online journalism?

    Reply
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