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Swiss press troubled by free papers, fewer proprietors

Free newspapers are handed out at bus and tram stops every weekday morning Keystone Archive

The Swiss newspaper industry faces an upheaval, as more local papers are swallowed by large publishing houses and commuters discover a new breed of free papers.

According to the Federal Statistical Office, the number of newspaper titles in Switzerland has fallen by almost a quarter in the past 20 years, from 266 in 1980 to 201 by the beginning of 2000.

The latest round of consolidation in the industry took place earlier this year, when four of the country’s local papers in the “Mittelland” area – bordering Basel, Bern and Zurich – merged to create the country’s third largest daily.

The mergers and closures are part of a broad trend in the Swiss regional press towards more centralised papers controlled by fewer publishing houses.

Werner Meier, a professor at the department of mass communications at the University of Zurich, suggests the reduction in the number of local papers is connected with a decline in the influence of institutions such as the church, which were once at the centre of local affairs.

“When I was growing up in Lucerne,” Meier told swissinfo, “we had four locally produced daily newspapers.

“Now there is just one. And the reason for this is that those parts of society which were once so dominant – namely, the church and political parties – have lost support and are no longer so influential.

“Nowadays, editors don’t make decisions based on what a political party has to say, but on what their readers want to hear,” he added.

Free commuter papers

Just under two years ago, in response to what proprietors saw as demand for a new type of newspaper, free commuter papers were published for the first time in Switzerland.

Both “20 Minutes”, launched in December 1999, and “Metropol”, which followed one month later, combine limited coverage of international and domestic stories with consumer affairs and entertainment news.

Both are magazine-size and distributed free of charge in three Swiss cities: Zurich, Basel and Bern.

“There was a gap in the market and that’s why free newspapers have been such a success in our country,” Markus Müller, head of marketing at “20 Minutes”, told swissinfo.

Over 310,000 copies of “20 Minutes” are printed each weekday morning and left at points where commuters are likely to pick up the paper on their way to work.

Similar ventures, all of which rely solely on advertising for revenue, have already proved successful in a number of cities across Europe.

“The idea was to create a new kind of newspaper especially for commuters and young people,” Müller said.

Lawrence Kenny, managing director of the rival free sheet “Metropol” says his paper has already established itself as a leading player in the market.

“We have had notable success in attracting Switzerland’s immigrant population who perhaps have German as a second language,” Kenny said.

Young Swiss attracted

Müller suggests “20 Minutes” has encouraged more and more young Swiss to pick up a newspaper for the first time.

“The starting age for reading newspapers used to be about 13-14 years old, but we have brought this barrier down and now children as young as 11 are beginning to read our paper,” Müller said.

Kenny agrees with this assessment, saying the aim of “Metropol” was to offer young Swiss a paper which they would “feel in step with”.

“We are very proud of having created a formula which is appropriate for this younger generation and which is introducing new people to the process of reading,” Kenny said.

But Professor Meier of Zurich University points to an inherent danger in this mission both to inform and entertain young people who might not otherwise buy a daily newspaper.

“In only a very basic sense can these papers be said to be providing a public service,” Meier said.

Little political coverage

“They contain very little in the way of political coverage, and much of the paper is given over to lifestyle issues, and advice about where to go out and where to buy the latest products.

“What is extremely dangerous is if I read this paper and then think to myself that I am now informed, because the truth is that I will be informed in only a very limited way.”

The proprietors of “20 Minutes” and “Metropol”, however, argue that their papers are designed to supplement and not replace existing paid-for reads.

“In a way, you could call our paper a guiding media,” said Müller.

“People try to find out what is interesting on a particular day by skimming through our colourful paper and then they go and deepen their knowledge about a particular topic by reading, say, the Neue Zurcher Zeitung,” he added.

Committed to local news

Müller also stresses his paper is committed to providing coverage of local news and events which directly affect their readers. “We believe it is extraordinarily important to have regional content because a paper can only be successful if it offers a good mix of national and regional news.”

Meier agrees that a newspaper’s greatest asset is its sense of regional identity and does not believe the trend towards industry consolidation will spell the end of local reporting in Switzerland.

But, Meier maintains, both the style and content of local news in today’s papers has undergone a transformation in recent years.

Pages which were once reserved for the coverage of local political affairs are now being filled by reports of local shop openings and cultural activities, Meier says.

“The real danger is that hard political news at a local level, which needs to be researched by trained journalists and which therefore costs money, will disappear.”

“And in Switzerland, which has a federal system of politics and direct democracy, the disappearance of this type of local news is a serious problem for the future.”

by Ramsey Zarifeh

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR