Instead of infotainment, this newspaper focuses on high-quality information.
Names can be deceptive. The “Neue” (new in English) component of the name “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” dates back to 1821, when the paper, founded in 1780 as the “Zürcher Zeitung”, was relaunched and subsequently called “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”. The newspaper is now 241 years old. It is the oldest newspaper still in existence in Switzerland and continues to follow its original credo: high-quality information for liberal-minded citizens. The only difference is that the target audience now also includes female citizens.
When it was founded in 1780, the NZZ was published twice a week; on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Starting in 1843, it became a daily, which in this case means seven times a week. By the end of the 19th century, however, this had become too little for the NZZ, as the news flow was outpacing its rate of publication. And so the newspaper increased its frequency: from 1894 to 1969, three issues were published per day, thus making it possible to cover news that broke in the afternoon in the evening edition.
In 1974, the newspaper halted its Sunday edition, only to reinstate it 30 years later with the launch of the “NZZ am Sonntag”. And since 1997, the newspaper has once again provided its readers with news throughout the day, as it did at the end of the 19th century, only online, of course.
The NZZ was considered a fiercely liberal publication even at the end of the 18th century. The newspaper spoke out against censorship and against the religious war that was brewing in Switzerland. At the time, it was normal for newspapers to take a clear stance, or even be partisan.
These days, most media outlets consider themselves bound to neutrality. They see themselves as a forum that gives space to all opinions. Not so the NZZ: Chairman of the Board Etienne Jornod speaks of a “fundamental commitment to liberalism and the societal, political and economic freedom enshrined in the constitution.” This is a position that the current Editor-in-Chief, Eric Gujer, sometimes expresses with a clarity that can hardly be topped, especially when it comes to German politics.
While other media have long been earning their money through additional electronic offerings and online platforms for used cars and the search for new acquaintances, the NZZ continues to focus on journalism. “Reliable, well-researched and credible information is more important today than ever,” wrote Jornod in 2018, and that still holds true three years later.
Jornod sees the NZZ as an “exclusive product for an exclusive clientele.” That is probably why it is by far the most expensive newspaper in Switzerland. The NZZ is intended for people who read articles even if they have no illustrations – and are linguistically more sophisticated than the texts contained in most other newspapers, which tend to be geared to beginning readers.
An employment contract for the editor-in-chief from 1849 states: “The editorial staff shall discuss the affairs of the day in Switzerland and abroad in a liberal spirit and using dignified language.” This still applies today. “Liberal spirit” is a political reference: the newspaper shares many of the views of and has ties to Switzerland’s FDP party, which advocates liberal policies and has made a name for itself as a right-of-center, pro-business party. The FDP’s party platform states that it stands for “personal responsibility, competition and healthy state finances” and fights “paternalism, bureaucracy and a bloated government” – this also describes the NZZ very well.
The NZZ honors this credo through the exceptional quality of its foreign reporting and its coverage of business and culture – precisely those topics that are the least read in most other daily newspapers.
The newspaper’s foreign reporting benefits from a large network of correspondents that was built up from 1870 onwards. The NZZ’s arts and culture section is still called “Feuilleton” and lives up to its name with contributions from people all over the world who work in the arts and culture. And in the NZZ, business reporting plays the same role in terms of scope and quality that the sports section plays in other newspapers.
Despite the NZZ’s liberal stance on politics and business, the newspaper is conservative when it comes to its own appearance, design and language. For a long time, a rule prevailed that no verbs could appear in titles. For example, the NZZ did not frantically report that a company’s share price was “crashing” or that a company was “nosediving”, but rather referred to the “decline” of the share price and the “loss” in the annual financial statements. A person who worked there was not an editor, no, they were an “NZZ editor” – which is also what was written in the phone book next to their name. It was a guild in itself.
Until relatively recently, the paper only printed photos in black and white, if at all. When it switched to color photos, many editors were convinced this would be the beginning of the end for the paper. The newspaper was cautious even when it came to advertising. People still talk about how it is said that the head of “Feuilleton”, Martin Meyer, once had to decide whether a sex ad was compatible with the moral sensibilities of the Zurich bourgeoisie.
If asked to describe the newspaper in one word, a person might opt for the adjective that probably best summarizes the entire Swiss economy: “solid”. Which is why the newspaper is often mocked by its competitors as being dull. In the past, wicked tongues used to say that you should not put the NZZ in your coat pocket, because otherwise your leg would fall asleep. But that was then: today, the NZZ is not only the oldest political daily newspaper in Switzerland, it remains the only one of world renown. And the quality of the paper speaks for itself.
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