Media experts predict a bruising battle for control of the free newspaper market in French-speaking Switzerland, as the first of two titles hit the streets.
First blood went to Lausanne-based publishing group Edipresse, which rolled out Le Matin Bleu on Monday – four months ahead of rival 20 Minutes.
The heavyweight contest sees two of the country's biggest publishers – Edipresse and Zurich-based Tamedia – going head-to-head after mulling over different options.
The pair were originally considering a joint venture before talks broke down early this year.
Edipresse was the first to take the plunge, announcing over a month ago that it would go it alone from October 31. Then last week – just days before the launch of Le Matin Bleu and after much speculation – Tamedia threw its hat into the ring.
Predictably both publishers have been talking up their chances, insisting there is room for two free dailies in French-speaking Switzerland.
But Jean Widmer, professor of communication and media sociology at Fribourg University, says the size of the market means only one paper will be left standing.
"I would say there isn't room for two," he told swissinfo. "In the French part of Switzerland there are around 1.3 million people, which is much less than in the German part, and the target population is limited to Lausanne and Geneva."
Théo Bouchat, director of the Le Matin newspaper group, has stated that he expects to eventually reach a readership of 500,000 through Le Matin Bleu and its paid-for stablemate Le Matin.
The Lausanne-based daily is the most widely read newspaper in western Switzerland, selling 350,000 copies a day, and Bouchat is counting on the group's existing infrastructure to give it the edge. Le Matin Bleu's print run was 100,000 on its opening day.
Tamedia announced last week that it plans to print 120,000 copies of 20 Minutes a day, with special editions for Lausanne and Geneva. It will have an editorial team of around 30 – ten more than Le Matin Bleu.
And unlike Edipresse, Tamedia has a proven track record when it comes to free newspapers. Launched by a Norwegian group in Zurich in 1999, 20 Minutes has steadily conquered the German-speaking part of the country.
It is now the most-widely read newspaper in Switzerland, with 948,000 readers. Widmer believes the experience gained over the past six years could prove crucial in deciding who snares the young, professional readers both are targeting.
"Quality will be a big factor and I think 20 Minutes will be better because they have done this before, and they have more people on their editorial team," he said.
Christophe Zimmermann, co-director of the Geneva-based Erasm market research institute, agrees that quality will be essential, and he expects both papers to be strong in this department.
He says a big factor will be the overall "feel" of each paper, something that proved decisive when 20 Minutes toppled rival Metropol in Zurich in 2002.
"Frankly you couldn't say that one was better put together than the other, but what made the difference in the end was the mood, the tone. The layout was more playful, more fun in 20 Minutes than in Metro," he said.
Both Zimmermann and Widmer doubt whether Le Matin Bleu's four-month head start will count for much since Tamedia is the established leader in Switzerland when it comes to free newspapers.
But one thing is certain: whoever wins the hearts and minds of readers will then hold the upper hand with advertisers.
Here much will depend on whether 20 Minutes, which will be able to offer advertisers national coverage, proves more attractive both in terms of cost and exposure than Le Matin Bleu.
"I don't think the battle of who is going to win or lose will depend on the economic health of each publishing group – both are in good enough shape to fight each other for some time," said Zimmermann. "But if the outlook for either group stays negative for too long, one of them will pull out."
"Personally, I think it is extremely doubtful that they will both be here in two or three years' time, but which one will be left is almost impossible to say right now."
swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva
Le Matin Bleu, published by Edipresse:
distributed from Monday in 44 towns and cities in French-speaking Switzerland;
print run of 100,000 copies a day;
target: "young, urban, working population";
single edition for the Lake Geneva region;
staff – 20.
20 Minutes, published by Tamedia:
due to hit the streets in March next year;
print run of 120,000 copies a day;
target: "young, urban readers with spending power";
special editions for Lausanne and Geneva;
staff – 30.
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