It seems legacy media have not yet learned to use the potential of experienced seniors. Within the last two years, Swiss journalists established two online platforms operated primarily by senior journalists. In the fall of 2010, Journal21 went online. Since then more than 2,400 posts dealing with politics, business, culture and society have been published. A similar site called Infosperber arrived on the market half a year later, posting 1,100 articles since then.
The philosophy behind the two Web offers is similar. “We are flooded with news information and short news bites. However to understand the deeper analysis, commentary and background information is needed,” states Journal21, continuing, “Very consciously we do not engage in lurid journalism. We address readers who are willing to engage in demanding texts … We don’t want to swim with the mainstream.”
The initiators of Infosperber also want “to emphasize topics according to their relevance for politics and society,” they intend to “focus on forgotten context and neglected perspectives” and to counterbalance “the PR–driven information presented by other media.” Proponents of Infosperber claim it will see what others overlook, however they don’t want to compete with the dominant media, preferring instead to complement them. For this reason, Infosperber devotes attention to the neglected field of media criticism.
Both platforms provide evidence that they’re meeting the high standards they’ve created. They define themselves as politically and religiously neutral. Without question, the retired professionals running the websites are more independent from “economic, political or religious interests” than their fully employed or freelancing colleagues who earn a living with journalistic work. However, with this comes the freedom of self-exploitation. Neither Journal21 nor Infosperber pay honoraria. Infosperber also expects its authors to document “potential conflicts of interest concerning the topic” the end of each contribution.
According to Heiner Hug, former director of Tagesschau, the most important Swiss TV newscast, “The Journal21 team includes 80 experienced journalists who’ve worked in large Swiss and German newsrooms. Many of them are or were editors in chief, department editors, correspondents or professors. Everyone is working for fun and pleasure, and everyone is conscious that profound journalism will only survive if it is nourished.” Along with Hug, other prominent journalists such as Stephan Wehowsky, Reinhard Meier, Emil Lehmann, Ignaz Staub and Claudia Kühner share the burden at Journal21.
The Infosperber team is much smaller. According to its impressum, 40 journalists currently collaborate. A dozen of them deliver “a posting at least every fortnight, another dozen only contribute occasionally,” says Urs P. Gasche, another prominent former television journalist. Gasche initiated the platform together with Christian Müller, a media consultant, and Robert Ruoff who was in charge of the educational program of the Swiss public broadcaster SF DRS. The group of active participants has also been astonishingly stable thus far. The core team, assembled in the so-called Stiftungsrat (foundation council) still has the same composition as it had when the project was founded. Of the original 14 members only three never became active. Five journalists direct the editorial team, one left and has since been replaced.
And how is the editorial coordination conducted? Journal21 has a weekly phone conference and a monthly meeting of the editors. Besides that a team of six rotating managing editors takes care of the daily routine. They “edit the incoming manuscripts, eventually refuse texts or request changes. The rotating editors may call contributors and ask them to write something related to a specific topic.” This seems to work pretty well, according to Hug.
Infosperber operates in a similar fashion. Basic questions concerning the editorial line, the organization or the optimization of the website are treated by the team of five top editors in four meetings per year. In a rotating scheme, each one of them takes care of the daily business. “In complex cases he or she will consult the other members of the editorial team,” says Gasche. If corresponding with contributors or users, a copy of each email will be sent to the other editorial board members to “ensure that all of us have the same level of information.” Beats are not institutionalized, but there is a difference between the directive editorial team, regular team members and occasional freelancers. Top editors can edit contributions from others. Regular team members can feed their own contributions into the system, earmarking them as “offline,” “offline for proof-reading,” or putting them “online.” Occasional contributors can also upload their contributions into the system. However, they need to pass an editorial check before they become visible online.
Journal21 is organized as an association (“Verein”), which is registered in the international trade register. Infosperber is protected by a common interest foundation, the Schweizerische Stiftung zur Förderung unabhängiger Information (Swiss Foundation to Promote Independent Information). Neither “a millionaire nor a large newspaper trust” could buy it, according to its website.
With so much competence and goodwill gathered, supposedly well-established mainstream publishing houses might make cooperation offers – as all of them are dealing with the unresolved problem of earning money online. However, such cooperation offers only arrived from the free newspaper 20Minuten. The initiators of Journal21 declined, explaining, “We certainly don’t want the 20Minuten label,” explains Hug. Instead, the website cooperates with more sophisticated partners like Medienwoche and Monat.
Infosperber has accepted the offer to cooperate with 20Minuten online: The online platform of the free newspaper can pick up contributions from Infosperber and promotes the much smaller partner in exchange. Another cooperation agreement exists with the TagesWoche published in Basel. Both partners agree to publish contributions and vice versa, crediting the source in each case.
And why don’t Journal21 and Infosperber cooperate or even merge? “The journalistic concept is similar,” says Gasche. “Journal 21 has its specific strength in providing background to foreign news.” Optically, Journal21 presents itself more as a blog than an information platform, according to Gasche. Infosperber proposed cooperation with Journal21 before they started – suggesting free mutual exchange of articles or even a merger, but Heiner Hug seemed not at all interested. He “wanted to create a profile for Journal21 as a brand of its own.” At least four of Journal21’s contributors offered to share their articles and commentaries with Infosperber, and in return authors of Infosperber can offer their contributions to Journal21.
“We were the first. We have a large team of very well known, very experienced reporters and editors. We are successful, and we will continue to be so,” Hug says in response to the question concerning cooperation. This looks a little bit like Swiss eccentricity. The country also has two competing associations dedicated to ensuring journalistic quality with quite similar goals, but obviously incompatible actors – the Verein Qualität im Journalismus (Association for Quality in Journalism) and the Verein Medienkritik (Association for Media Criticism).
Neither Journal21 nor Infosperber have been involved in legal battles or threats thus far. However, there were “heavy reactions, particularly in response to stories dealing with the near East.” This is something he says he learned “from the Swiss daily TV news Tagesschau. An Infosperber contribution about Israel provoked a request for a counterstatement as well.” According to Gasche, the complainant was given the opportunity to provide his view.
Journal21 ran up a bill of 70,000 Swiss Francs (= €58,300) during its first one and a half years of operation. Meanwhile, some support has been promised by foundations, and for the first time a call for donations has been published on the website not long ago. During the first nine months, the founders of Infosperber paid 23,000 Swiss Francs (= €19,150). The money was spent, according to Gasche, mainly to optimize the website, but also to advertise it, to host it and to cover news processing costs. Three-thousand Swiss Francs arrived as donations from third parties.
It is still too early to evaluate the success of the two platforms. However, the mere existence of Journal21 and Infosperber point to another failure of the mainstream media: the inability to tap into the potential of the young elderly and integrate viewpoints of the “+65 generation” in their media products. Neglecting such a body of expertise and wisdom means not only a loss of competence and knowledge for our society, but it is also an unnecessary bloodletting for newsrooms. It is difficult to understand why intellectually vivid people over the age of 65 are forced to resign from regular work. The more the share of the elderly in our society grows, the more journalists and media managers need to ensure they remain adequately represented in daily news reporting. The long-lasting struggles for quotas of women and minorities may seem like yesterday’s battle, despite a recent resurgence in Germany with female journalists fighting for leadership positions. However, the time seems to have arrived to work for a “grey panther,” quota, be it to guarantee public visibility, to represent the cohort of the elderly adequately in the newsrooms.
Original article appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, June 19, 2012.