swissinfo’s new director, Beat Witschi, says the internet has the potential to revolutionise the media and how we access information.
For swissinfo itself, his priorities are to provide more information and services to the Swiss living abroad, and to better integrate swissinfo’s website into the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation’s multimedia operations.
swissinfo: You became director of swissinfo on January 1. How do you see your role?
Beat Witschi: I helped to create the web platform, swissinfo, which went online in 1999. Before that we were a shortwave [radio] service.
Now the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) – of which we are a part – is in the process of defining a multimedia strategy for the entire corporation.
swissinfo must play an important role in that strategy. We have an additional mandate to provide a service to the Swiss living abroad. And so I want to be sure that the SBC is aware of our role, and that we can assist the corporation in developing this strategy.
swissinfo: How prepared are you for your new role?
B.W.: I was fortunate enough to work in multimedia when I worked abroad, and I am bringing this knowledge to bear in my role at swissinfo/Swiss Radio International.
I also know swissinfo/Swiss Radio International very well because I worked here for many years as a radio journalist.
swissinfo: What do you intend to change as director of swissinfo?
B.W.: We will certainly try to do more to integrate swissinfo into the SBC. To that end, we need to develop both the quality and the content of our nine-language web platform. We need to expand our platform, and to make it more attractive and better overall.
We also have to offer more to the Swiss abroad in terms of services, and for this the internet is an excellent medium.
swissinfo: Do you have any concrete objectives for this year and beyond?
B.W.: The focus over the next 12 months is to improve the website. Two years ago we upgraded all nine language sites, but there is still work to be done to make swissinfo more interactive, faster and to expand our content.
The medium term will depend on the SBC, which has to decide to what extent we should be integrated into the corporation.
swissinfo: You mentioned multimedia strategy. Do you think swissinfo will still exist in its current form three years from now?
B.W.: The website will certainly still exist. I don’t know whether we will have nine languages, but I hope so. This is largely a decision for the political authorities.
In my opinion, swissinfo is very well positioned. We are cost- efficient and flexible, we have a good journalistic product, and we use a medium that is accessible across the world. In general, I am very optimistic that we will still be here in a few years’ time.
swissinfo: Competition from within the SBC and from private operators is growing. How is swissinfo positioned against competitors?
B.W.: We are answerable both to the political authorities, who want a service for the Swiss abroad, and to the SBC, which provides funding for us. Both will ultimately decide whether and in what form we should continue to operate.
Ideally swissinfo would complement the SBC’s existing multimedia offering. This is what discussions are focused on at the moment.
We want to offer as much content as possible, but we can’t do it all ourselves because we don’t have the resources. So we are focused on finding creative ways to work together [with the SBC].
swissinfo: What makes swissinfo different from other online media in Switzerland?
B.W.: We provide perspective from abroad, while the domestic Swiss media serve primarily a local audience, which means their focus tends to be regional [ie: on German-, French- or Italian-speaking Switzerland].
We have to offer more - namely a national overview. And our journalists have to look at Switzerland through the eyes of someone living abroad.
They have to decide which are the most important issues, trends and developments behind the daily headlines. This is our niche, our strength and also our mandate.
swissinfo: Last October, swissinfo/SRI ceased all radio broadcasts. Where does that leave the Swiss living abroad who do not have internet access?
B.W.: Naturally it would be ideal if we could communicate through a range of media – radio, television, internet and mobile phones. But for financial reasons, we had to decide which medium worked best for us, and that was the internet.
The advantage is that we can offer much more content than previously. The drawback is that not everyone has internet access. I think we made the right decision under the circumstances. With this medium we can offer the best service to both Swiss living abroad and also to an international audience.
swissinfo: What are the prospects for the internet as a medium?
B.W.: It’s likely that the various media will continue to develop. The younger generation already expect to be able to access the information they want through the media they prefer – basically information “on demand”. The internet has enormous potential here, and far more than has been realised yet.
swissinfo-interview: Gaby Ochsenbein
1958: Born in Bern, Switzerland.
1988-1995: Journalist at Swiss Radio International.
1995–1999: CNN Atlanta
2000–2001: CNN London
2001–2004: Head of swissinfo website
Since January 2005: Director of swissinfo, succeeding Nicolas Lombard.
swissinfo/SRI has websites in nine languages: English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese and Chinese.
This year the Swiss Broadcasting Corportation will be contributing SFr23 million towards swissinfo's total budget of SFr28 million. The balance comes from government.
Next year, the government will end its contribution entirely, as the result of public spending cuts, leaving swissinfo solely funded by SBC.