Among the many attempts to develop new business models for quality online media -- from ProPublica's philanthropic funding to MediaPart's subscription-only to the FT's finite-free -- a new Swiss site launching today offers a novel and intriguing approach.
Swisster (tagline: "local news, global views") is a Swiss English-language site that will cover business, finance, politics, science&tech and lifestyle stories "with a regional twist", says editor Christophe Rasch. Switzerland has four national languages, but English is not one of them. It is becoming one in fact, though, being increasingly spoken daily in banks, multinational corporations, academic and media organizations, design and advertising firms, and well beyond. It's now commonplace in Switzerland to find English-language national advertising campaigns or English-named stores and products and sports clubs. But this hasn't yet translated into national locally-produced English-language media (although the average newsstand carries a generous variety of British, US and international -- Monocle, IHT, WSJE, etc -- publications).
This situation has been slowly evolving in recent years, with the likes of Swissinfo and World Radio Switzerland (a web site and a radio channel produced by Swiss Public Broadcasting), or with the launch of the "English corners" on newspaper websites such as Geneva's Tribune de Genève and Basle's Basler Zeitung, and of independent sites such as GenevaLunch.
Now Swisster wants to fill the vacuum (Disclosure: LunchOverIP will be featured on the site's blog section). "Our core target are the 100'000 expatriates or Swiss who live in Western Switzerland (the Lake Geneva region) and use English as their main daily work language. Later -- we plan to go national with our coverage within two years -- we will also reach out to the 300'000 in the rest of the country", says Rasch.
Although impressive for Switzerland, these are small figures, which explains in part why no significant national English-language news outlet has existed so far. It also explains why Rasch and his team are adopting a very unusual business approach to make Swisster economically viable. The site of course carries advertising. The rest of the revenue will come from a particular, and daring, form of subscription. "Our potential market is a niche", says the editor, "and the people in that niche can be generally found in big organizations". Swisster is published by Edipresse, one of Switzerland's top-three publishers, and SNP, the Swiss branch of France's Hersant, but counts a number of other "founding members", big multinational corporations, leading private banks such as LODH, and academic institutions such as EPFL, which have contributed to the initial funding and will contribute to developing the readership by buying subscriptions in bulk and distributing the accounts among their executives and staffers (and their families). While anyone will be able to subscribe individually -- yearly subs will cost a rather steep 300 CHF apiece -- Swisster will focus primarily on selling group subscriptions to big companies and organizations, where its target readers work.
Additional twist: the general (non-paying) public will also have access to the site, but only to the stories that are 48 hours old or older (and some stories will never be "free access"). Subscribers will instead receive breaking news, daily news, newsletters, service information (from detailed information on snow conditions on the Alpine slopes to housing info) and have access to a social-networking platform. Partnerships are also being established, including one with TimesOnline, the web site of the UK's The Times.
Swisster will be produced initially by an editorial staff of 6, based in Geneva, Lausanne and Zurich, and Edipresse has been able to attract professionals with both significant journalistic experience (they come from the Economist, the Guardian, Reuters etc) and a good knowledge of Switzerland. "Editorial independence is guaranteed", Rasch stresses when we argue that the chosen business model will put it under pressure: "the founding members have committed for several years and will have no say on our editorial choices".