Eight questions for our Editor in Chief
Larissa M. Bieler

Interview: Nina Hübner, Communication and Marketing  

Larissa, you‘ve been Editor in Chief at SWI swissinfo.ch since 1 January 2016. You handle ten languages, over 70 journalists and make an impact through the use of various formats. This is clearly a huge challenge! Before joining SWI you were Editor in Chief at the Bündner Tagblatt and gave this traditional publication a fresh, more contemporary look.

What do you have in mind for SWI? 

The ten languages are already a unique USP of SWI and we have the quality to work on good background stories, but in order for them to be read, people have to know very clearly what they can expect from us. We can set ourselves apart better and more consistently via individual topics and dossiers. And we have to learn to say no. I see considerable potential here in terms of positioning ourselves.

What was the greatest challenge for you in 2016? 

The greatest challenge of the past year and this year as well is certainly the complex structure of ten editorial teams working in different languages, who have worked relatively autonomously up to now, the strict line hierarchies and the tight journalistic corset that was imposed in the past and in which people had to work. The most competent person is supposed to make decisions, and more discussions need to be held. The goal is to strengthen cooperation between the departments again and to make use of interdisciplinary knowledge in order to reflect the unique international flair of our company in our offering. That’s what sets us apart. Cooperation between the editorial teams with regard to focus topics such as “Islam in Switzerland” or “Expats in Switzerland” is progressing, and now we need some impetus from the editorial teams. 

SWI serves a very heterogeneous audience with information. Our reporting has to deal with the needs of over ten different cultures. How does SWI forge this bridge? 

I have to start at the beginning here. SWI is an exciting challenge because we want to target a very mixed, fragmented and remote audience all over the world. We don’t call them target audiences, we talk about communities defined by language and cultural areas or, as described above, by interests or topics. The common denominator is either language or culture, as for instance with the Japanese or Chinese editorial team, or we first have to find and define the common interest and activate the community, as with the specialist editorial team of “Direct Democracy”. There are, however, also existing communities such as the cross-border commuters in Ticino, Geneva or Basel, or the Swiss expats; for us they are of course a great opportunity as we can address them together. It’s clear that each community has to be targeted individually, so the style, formats, and the narrative differ because, for instance, the Chinese and the British have different preferences. That’s why we also have journalists who come from and know the language regions. With the closed community of Swiss expats we forge a bridge via proximity, dialogue and an emotional element which we create via the hash tag #WeAreSwissAbroad. In our topic-related community work we approach our readers and enable identification and commitment. This is a sea change for SWI. In journalistic terms this also means that the editorial teams must, in addition to the compulsory material, have the freedom to report more independently, more directly, more courageously, more surprisingly and in a less institutional manner.

A direct connection with readers is very important to SWI. Active community building aims to foster a dialogue with users. SWI wants to know what the target audience would like. We asked our visitors via Facebook and Twitter to send their questions to you, Larissa. 

Here’s a selection from the Facebook community: 

Oliver Hegglin wants to know: How is it decided what is and is not reported, who makes these decisions, and how do you justify not reporting something?

If it’s about background topics that are adapted in all languages, all the editorial teams discuss the journalists’ proposals at the planning meeting on Tuesday afternoon and make a decision together. All the editors-in-chief are involved in the daily morning meeting; they discuss the topics to be published in a short space of time and which cover a current dialogue in Switzerland with a specific focus. Here the Editor in Chief has the right to declare a topic compulsory for Swiss expats, for example. This happens if these are core topics. The individual language departments also always have the option of determining topics themselves, and they are the experts for their communities and language region. In this case, the Editor in Chief decides. This is how the entire editorial content of SWI is made up. 

How do we justify ourselves in terms of information we don’t provide? As journalists we know Switzerland and can prioritize which information is relevant and which is only nice to have. The English department also has a news desk which, like an agency, has to be able to send the day’s key information from Switzerland to the world. 

David Cranford asks: Why do you base your articles on your political views?

That’s a suggestive question that implies that we don’t report objectively. I can only refute that. Like all SRG media companies we are obliged to report independently, in a balanced, fair and objective manner. Our offering is based on the basic values of a liberal, democratic society, as set out in the Federal Constitution and other international agreements. This includes respect for democratic institutions and processes, freedom of opinion, division of powers, respect for minorities, human rights and international law. Independence is the most important asset in journalism, yet it is no longer self-evident, even in Switzerland. We are aware of this, it’s a privilege, and we act accordingly.

Emanuel Adair Boder has a personal question for you: Which political party does she vote for?

Journalists shouldn’t be members of a political party, they report independently. I don’t have a problem not thinking in terms of right and left, I don’t vote for a party either, but vote on individual topics. I would describe myself as Conservative in terms of cultural, and ethical values, and people shouldn’t adopt every innovation without voicing any criticism. I’m a Liberal, because I take responsibility and look to the future confidently, and I’m a Social Democrat when it comes to protecting minorities or if it’s about the gap between rich and poor. I don’t have a clear political profile.

And Marcel Ackle addresses the following points: Love the comments here... 

Reminds me of Nestlé asking online how people think about them....  :-)
What does SWI think about Nestlé and the issue of water and Brabecks ”access to water should not be a human right”? 

Are you allowed to think and publish in a critical way or do you just publish what you are told to do?

Nobody tells us what to do or what to report on; we are independent and that’s a privilege nowadays, even in Switzerland. All reporting options are open to us. We can evaluate situations, circumstances, and events critically, but we don’t judge. We analyse, bring things to people’s attention and offer readers as objective a basis as possible for forming their own opinion. What each of us thinks about Nestlé is not important here, and doesn’t play a role in our work. But we can address quotes and highlight situations, that’s our responsibility. 

And the following question was sent via Twitter by AL-Awaji: @swissinfo_en Why don’t all the languages of @swissinfo publish the reports on the same day? And some stories aren’t covered at all?

Because we consider our target groups who sleep or consume information at different times around the world. But the time difference is only one aspect, the editorial teams have different time frames. The English department has a news desk, where important information is published immediately. The Swiss editorial team works in the national languages and serves the neighbouring countries who are more involved in Swiss topics. Here too, topical issues have to be published promptly. For the Chinese or Arabic communities, for instance, it doesn’t make any difference whether they read today or tomorrow or even the day after that Switzerland is now testing self-driving trains or celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The publication date also depends on the event. In a catastrophe such as an earthquake we have the duty to provide information right away. As for the second question, I refer back to my answer above.  

Thank you very much for this insight into your work and SWI. Regardless of the colour of the makeover, things at SWI are set to remain interesting.