This month we start a new series looking at the lives and empires of media barons. First is Michael Ringier who, in 1991, became the fifth generation of his Swiss family to head their eponymous empire. Since then Ringier AG has expanded into eastern Europe and the Far East. Last year it launched its first free evening paper in Switzerland.
“It’s still a thrill to see people reading Blick on the tram in the morning,” says Michael Ringier, surveying the world from his sixth-floor office at Ringier AG’s Zürich headquarters. “With all the freesheets around, it’s wonderful when people put a few francs in our pocket!”
A former journalist, the 58-year-old’s newsroom instinct has rung the inevitable changes over the years. Heute is his own afternoon freesheet – a newspaper arrived at after focus groups and frequent redesigns, with internet-style pages of youth-oriented, user-generated, commuter-friendly content.
“I was sceptical about focus groups,” says Ringier. “Media is still an emotional thing.” Perhaps this is why: his influential and respected Belgrade tabloid Blic (Look) was banned in the Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic. Now up and running again, its market-leading sales remain a totem of freedom for its readers.
Landmark events are similarly defined by regional tastes – the screen-grabs of Saddam Hussein’s execution made the front page of the firm’s eastern European variations (Blic, Blesk, Blikk), for example, while they were not run at all in the original Swiss Blick.
“Swissness” is a notion Ringier often contemplates. “Switzerland is a consensus – one big compromise. Blick has tried to lead opinion in the past, but readers just think it arrogant,” he muses. “Even if you do a campaign against an unsuccessful football coach, Swiss people say ‘that’s enough – he’s a human being!’”
In the extended eastern European and Asian markets, Ringier’s publications have to be careful how they tread. How close do political parties and pressure groups want to get to the leading newspaper proprietor? “Oh, very close,” says Ringier, with a laugh. “In a way, I’m a moderator between the people and the people who want to govern them.”
He takes his role as an apolitical operator very seriously. “Being a foreign publisher who just wants to sell journalism and make money means I’m not a local tycoon using his paper to fight the government or get a bigger stake in privatisation. In Italy, where the prime minister owned a large chunk of the media – it was a disaster. It’s worse in France, where most of the media is now owned by weapons manufacturers – a total loss of independence and a catastrophe for a democracy.”
Ringier wears his brand of Swiss neutrality well and his prognosis for the future of the family business is equally bullish. “We were first in places like Hungary and so language protects us from competitors.” His rivals just don’t know how to produce a paper in Hungarian.
With only three shareholders (himself and his two older sisters, Evelyn and Annette), selling up is anathema to a man at the helm of a 175-year-old business.
“I always get offers, but I would never sell.” Could he cooperate with anyone besides flesh and blood? “I always say ‘why not?’ to a merger, if I can stay a major shareholder, but to give up all this you’d have to have a very good reason – and money can never be a reason.”
1833 Johann Rudolf Ringier founds a book-printing works 1911 Schweizer Illustrierte founded 1959 Blick is launched 1989 Cash Daily launched 1991 Michael Ringier becomes president of the board of directors of Ringier AG 1992 Czech Republic launch of Blesk 1993 Vietnam Economic Times launched 1994 Thoi Trang Tre (women’s title) launched in Vietnam 1997 Ringier takes over operational management of Ringier AG 2004 Blic launches in Serbia; significant expansion in Romania, Slovakia and Czech Republic 2006 Ringier launches Heute, its first free evening newspaper
Ringier has 30 newspapers and 105 magazines. Here’s a sample:
Most popular Swiss daily
Paper for business boys
Free daily newspaper
Founded in 1911 and the most read magazine in Switzerland. An institution
Popular and populist news magazine
Shanghai and Beijing
Aimed at urban, white-collar English speakers
Guide books for Chinese backpackers in China
CAAC Inflight Magazine
Official magazine for the Civil Aviation Administration of China
Thoi Trang Tre
Women’s fashion magazine
Aimed at young pop-lovers. Ringier owns 51 per cent
Programme on Channel SF2 (Public Swiss channel)
Most popular economic programme in Switzerland.
Motor Show, SF2
Only motor show on public Swiss TV