In Switzerland’s linguistically distinct and relatively small markets, the business of news remains challenging – and seems likely to remain so, after the defeat in a February 2022 referendum of proposals to increase state subsidies for private media.
With this latest referendum, the state of the Swiss news media was once again centre stage, although media attention and turnout were not nearly as high as in 2018 when a referendum on abolition of public broadcast licence fees was defeated.1 The February referendum saw the new media law rejected by 55% of voters after an often-heated debate, with opposition led by media owners linked to right-wing parties. The law included plans to more than double indirect subsidies for print (from 50m Swiss Francs per annum to 120m), some increase in subsidies for small regional private broadcasters (81m to 109m per annum), and 30m Swiss Francs per annum in new direct subsidies focused mainly on smaller online media firms. The debate reflected divisions in public opinion and the limited understanding of the economic situation of the news media – as highlighted in last year’s survey data.2 This might partially be because of the different position of news operations compared to media companies in general. On the one hand, declining advertising revenues are driving increased media concentration and centralisation of news production. On the other hand, the best-known media companies remain profitable, in many cases thanks to revenues from non-journalistic activities such as online marketplaces and cost-cutting measures in journalism (e.g. TX Group, formerly Tamedia, merging its two papers in Switzerland’s capital Bern).
Publishers are now pressing for policies to make platforms pay copyright fees for link previews and snippets, a proposal which the government seems receptive to. This is a touchy subject in a country where the platforms have a significant physical presence, with Facebook developing virtual reality products in Zurich and Google expanding its Zurich base (its largest development centre outside the US) to work on Google Maps, YouTube, and other services.
Possibly encouraged by the outcome of the media law referendum, a committee of right-wing politicians and business associations has started working towards another referendum targeting Switzerland’s public broadcaster SRG SSR. This proposal, seeking a halving in the licence fee, is expected to have a better chance of succeeding than the 2018 plan for its abolition. SRG SSR is criticised for losing important sports rights and dropping some well-known radio and TV cultural programmes as part of its ‘digitalisation strategy 2024’. Meanwhile its news programmes remain the most trusted sources with the highest reach offline and considerable reach online.
Amidst the difficult digital transformation, some major private media companies are pursuing greater cooperation. The largest two, Ringier, the publisher of the tabloid Blick, and TX Group with brands such as 20 Minuten, formed a joint venture in 2021, merging their online marketplaces. They are also leading the joint industry project ‘OneLog’, to provide users with a single login for online news content – both free and paid – from multiple providers, while companies hope to get better data for advertising. The gradual introduction of the login system might explain why 31% of Swiss respondents (amongst the highest figure in the Digital News Report countries) say that they have registered with news outlets.
Swiss publishers are also betting on subscription strategies, with many of them offering freemium models online. The percentage paying for news (18%), which is up by seven percentage points (pp) since 2019, already places Switzerland alongside the higher ranking countries in our sample. The prestigious German-language paper NZZ, now has roughly 200,000 subscribers, with an increasing number paying for annual instead of short-term subscriptions.
New digital-born outlets generally offer cost-free tabloid journalism to attract advertisers (e.g. Blick in German- and Watson in French-speaking Switzerland) or operate in ‘niches’ in the larger cities (e.g. Bajour in Basel). One exception is Republik, which started with crowdfunding in 2018 and now has c.29,000 subscribers with a budget of around 6m Swiss Francs per annum; it focuses on slow news and offers a few articles a day. While these launches demonstrate a readiness to innovate, they also indicate the continuing struggle to produce sustainable comprehensive quality journalism online.
Format-wise, Swiss media’s move towards more audio (podcasts) and audiovisual formats remains limited. However, 20 Minuten, Switzerland’s dominant cost-free print and online brand, is shifting towards a ‘social media first’ strategy with new formats. On its news app, it is also experimenting with automated translations in languages used by migrant minorities (e.g. Portuguese, Albanian, English).
Linards Udris and Mark Eisenegger
Research Center for the Public Sphere & Society (fög), Department of Communication and Media Research (IKMZ) / University of Zurich
Pay for online news
Listen to podcast in the last month
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Overall, news trust is down after last year’s COVID bump. In terms of brands, public broadcasters are the most trusted in both German- and French-speaking areas, followed by local newspapers and quality newspapers. Tabloids and digital-born brands tend to be less well-trusted.