The NL was founded 125 years ago. Where did Switzerland get its news from back then? The main source was the Swiss Telegraphic Agency (Schweizerische Depeschenagentur, SDA). It too began work 125 years ago, in 1895.
2020: Today we’re linked in to digital networks and get news from all over the world, all the time, published by professionals and amateurs. 125 years ago, things were very different: anyone wanting to keep abreast of developments at home and abroad read the newspaper.
An independent news agency for Switzerland
Until the late 19th century, newspapers in Switzerland were primarily the mouthpieces of political parties used to shape political opinions. The first non-partisan “Generalanzeiger”, or general advertisers, did not appear until around 1880. They sought to position themselves as products of a profit-oriented mass press, for which not only advertising space but also reliable information about events around the world were of major, and indeed economic importance. To obtain that information, Swiss editors often had to use the services of foreign news agencies. Even news about Switzerland was sometimes gleaned from France’s Havas or the Berlin-based Wolffsches Telegraphisches Bureau. For multilingual Switzerland, having to obtain its news from two mutually hostile neighbouring countries was a far from ideal situation.
In 1894, Swiss publishers resolved to make themselves independent of foreign agencies and set up an agency in Switzerland. Fourteen daily newspapers banded together in a syndicate and founded the “Schweizerische Depeschenagentur” (SDA), a limited company organised as a cooperative.
It commenced operations on 1 January 1895, with offices in Bern, Basel, Zurich and Geneva. Eight editors, assisted by some 50 correspondents, supplied the newspapers with news material in German and French. The Italian-language service was established in 1915. The number of subscribers grew steadily, and the offering was expanded.
War, crises and mergers
SDA was expected to supply objective information, since its work was the basis for reporting in the Swiss press. Its reputation for impartiality and neutrality came under particular strain during the two world wars, when the Swiss press was placed under state control.
At the same time, SDA was able to extend its reach by harnessing new technologies. From 1930 to 1970, the news produced by SDA was broadcast directly on Swiss radio stations. While some listeners criticised the monotonous voice in which the news was delivered, the Swiss population were not alone in valuing the matter-of-fact reporting from the small neutral state as an alternative to the propagandist tone during the Second World War. As a result, the radio news from SDA became an important source of information beyond Switzerland’s borders. These interesting documents can be viewed today in the SDA archive at the Swiss National Library.
SDA continued to develop after the Second World War. The flood of information expanded greatly in the second half of the 20th century, and the technology used to transmit it changed rapidly. SDA began working with foreign agencies in order, for example, to gain access to satellite-supported infrastructures. The year 1981 marked the start of the age of electronic transmission.
The late 1990s then saw the arrival of the internet. Digital technologies led to a radical transformation of media consumption. SDA too was drawn into the crisis affecting the media. Advertising revenues slumped and the business model had to be revised. In 2018, SDA merged with the picture agency Keystone and now trades as Keystone-SDA. The upheavals in the media world continue. Some in civil society, concerned about whether democracy is being supplied with trustworthy information, are proposing transforming the agency into a publicly financed, public service organisation. It remains to be seen what role the multimedia agency Keystone-SDA will play in the future.
Last modification 09.09.2020