The Swiss media is undergoing profound change. Against the backdrop of job cuts at regional and local newspapers, a prestigious research team says news coverage and serious journalism is sliding into shallow waters.
The verdict by the authors of the 2012 Yearbook on the editorial quality in the Swiss media is unflattering. The team from the Centre for Research on the Public Sphere and Society at Zurich University claims news coverage has become clearly more superficial over the past decade. They say it provides less background to help the public understand the implications of a political decision or a social issue.
The researchers define media quality as diversity in content and opinion, relevance, news value, including context, as well as the adherence to professional standards, such as transparency and the sourcing of information.
Lead author Kurt Imhof, professor of sociology, warns of the consequences for democracy if the low-quality mainstream media continue to win ground over higher-quality products for the elite.
“Free sheets and free online media platforms are pushing a more episodic, personalised editorial coverage with moralizing undertones,” he told swissinfo.ch.
The populist media trend has been accompanied by a strengthening of rightwing populist parties in several European countries, Imhof says.
It is also seen as the result of a purely income-oriented business policy of Switzerland’s main publishers and the opening up of the state-run broadcasting sector to private radio and television stations in the 1980s.
Mark Eisenegger, co-author of the survey, calls on publishers to take their social responsibility seriously and to give up “their dogmatic denial of a market for more ambitious forms of journalism which treats complex topics in depth”.
“As long as we consider democracy a tenet of our society the public service character of the media must be taken seriously,” adds Imhof.
Media in Switzerland
The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) is the country’s largest media company.
Funded by public licence fees, it runs television and radio programmes as well as online sites in all four national languages. swissinfo.ch is a SBC unit.
Tamedia and Ringier are two of the leading private publishers. Tamedia focuses on print and online in Switzerland, while Ringier is also involved in radio and television and is active abroad.
Due to the linguistic and cultural diversity of the country, most newspapers are local or regional dailies which gave Switzerland for a long time an exceptional status in Europe with a highly developed media sector.
The Neue Zürcher Zeitung NZZ (sold copies mid 2012: 129,627) and Le Temps (41,531) newspapers are considered the most prestigious dailies in the respective language regions.
The first tabloid, Blick, was launched in 1959 for the main German-speaking region. Ten years later Ringier publishers also put a Sunday paper on the market.
Tamedia’s free sheet 20 Minuten/20 Minutes/20 Minuti in three language regions has the highest combined circulation in Switzerland.
Blick sold 191,064 copies, while the 20 Minute editions claim a print run of 732,148. For detailed print run figures of Swiss newspapers see Wemf/Remp link.
The leading Tamedia company - with about 40 newspapers, including 13 dailies, as well as 20 online platforms - rejects Imhof’s quality assessment.
Spokesman Christoph Zimmer says the sample of the researchers does not sufficiently take into account the increasing number of media available to a consumer.
“Quality also has to factor in the character of the medium,” says Zimmer in defence of the publisher’s own popular “20 Minutes” free sheets and respective online news site.
He believes there is room for such a publication which does not necessarily provide much in-depth information for readers.
Zimmer stresses that 20 Minutes is the first national news publication in three Swiss national languages - German, French and Italian – and reaches two million readers with its online news platforms attracting another 500,000.
However, sociologist Imhof downplays the commercial success. “Surveys have shown that today’s younger generation is not more interested in politics despite free access to certain media.”
At best it is a contribution to prevent them from becoming illiterates, he quips.
In decline and controversial
The debate has been accompanied by the announcement over the past few weeks of job cuts at regional and local newspapers.
The traditional print sector has been suffering from a slump in advertising due in part to online platforms as well as television eating further into their revenue.
The drop in advertising is estimated at a third during the last decade to about SFr2 billion ($2.1 billion), according to a report by the Matin Dimanche weekly.
And private publishers are at odds with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) – swissinfo.ch’s parent company - over the use of advertising on the public broadcaster’s news websites.
In September the government refused to grant SBC the right to sell advertising space for its online services. But the controversy is likely to flare again in the next few years.
Cuts and quality
At the presentation of the media quality survey in October, Eisenegger highlighted the growing financial pressure on journalism.
His warning has since been underlined by reports on planned staff reductions at various newspapers, including the prestigious daily, the Geneva-based Le Temps. There is little doubt for Imhof that the quality of a media product will inevitably suffer since fewer staff won’t be able to provide the same output.
He also blames the decline in quality on a trend which has seen management giving more preference to all-rounders than specialist journalists, and the merger of print with online units in common newsrooms. Imhof therefore calls for new funding schemes for media companies – for instance with non-profit foundations or the introduction of an advertising tax.
For his part, Tamedia spokesman Zimmer admits there is a link between resources and quality. “But more resources does not automatically mean better quality,” he adds.