July 25, 2021

François Longchamp: “We want a title at the cutting edge of quality journalism in French-speaking Switzerland”

Read also: philanthropy, a lifeline for quality prese?

The Aventinus Foundation brings together endowments from the Hans Wilsdorf, Leenaards and Jan Michalski foundations, as well as half a dozen private patrons who wish to remain anonymous. This morning she announced the redemption of the daily Time, which will be effective on January 1, 2021, as well as the acquisition of Heidi.news “in the next six months”. François Longchamp, former Geneva State Councilor and President of Aventinus, explains the ambitions of this new press group.

Heidi.news: How did the project to come together to invest in the media germinate within these different foundations?

François Longchamp: the death of Weekly, in 2017, was like an electric shock, because this title has strongly contributed to forging the identity of French-speaking Switzerland by helping the region to perceive itself as a strong entity, both in its relations with the outside world and in which concerns the economy, knowledge, research, etc. Following a conference given by Eric Hoesli (former director and editor-in-chief of Time, and now announced as chairman of the board of directors of the future entity, editor’s note), several foundations have become aware of the difficulties of the sector and realized that the decision-making centers of the French-speaking media are moving further and further away from French-speaking Switzerland, in Zurich, Germany, and even further afield. The Aventinus Foundation was born from this desire to support and develop media players who contribute to the qualitative presentation of facts and the debate of ideas, which are essential to democracy, in particular in Switzerland. It is about fighting against the withering of information, accentuated by the surge of disinformation circulating on social networks. It is a civic mission.

We have examined 44 cases since the foundation was created, and we have dealt with them in about two-thirds of the cases, sometimes in the form of ad hoc support, sometimes more strategically.

And why Le Temps in particular?

The redemption of Time emerged quickly because our intention, from the start, was to have a significant influence on the problem that we had identified, and not to sprinkle the market with disparate aids. We knew the difficulties of the newspaper, which had in fact already been put up for sale once by its owners. And although it plays a central role in our region, it lacked synergy in its publisher’s portfolio.

François Longchamp on November 2 in Geneva, the day of the signing of the purchase of Time by the Aventinus Foundation. Photo: Nicolas Righetti / Lundi13 for Heidi.news

The negotiations were very long – over a year! Was it because of the price?

Price was of course an important part of the negotiation, but the main complexity was the interweaving of the Time with the services of the RASCH group (Ringier Axel Springer Switzerland, editor’s note), internal subcontracting contracts as well as the financial structure of the share. It should be understood that buying the legal structure Le Temps SA did not make it possible to manufacture a newspaper: the journalists were not attached to it, since they are employees of the RASCH group! It was therefore necessary to bring together all the subcontracted activities within the group before proceeding with the acquisition of the company.

What was the climate for the negotiations?

Our contacts changed during the discussion, and the Covid crisis did not simplify anything … We are taking over from a publisher who has invested heavily in this title, and we must pay tribute to him.

Are you going to continue to contract out services to the previous owner?

We want to bring together the skill set needed to make a journal, not just resume writing. However, we will continue to subcontract printing, and we are maintaining a contract with the existing advertising network. The other services (administration, IT, marketing) will be integrated into Le Temps SA.

Will the Aventinus Foundation set economic goals in terms of profitability or readership development?

The financial goal is not a priority, but that does not mean that the foundation is a bottomless pit. We will ask the teams to establish a project that corresponds to an established budget, and which must above all find its market and its audience. It’s clear that Time will have to continue to prove itself! This will include renewing the readership by finding new ways to convey information. We do not want to subsidize the newspaper of a departing generation, but to develop an ambitious title, at the forefront of what quality journalism should be in French-speaking Switzerland. This will mean significant investments, especially in digital, and editorial coverage.

What sections should be developed in your opinion?

This journal cannot remain static in a changing world. It will be necessary to strengthen the coverage of Swiss democratic activity: politics in the etymological sense of the term. This requires in particular a greater presence in the cantons. What we want is that Time strengthens its status as a benchmark newspaper, both in terms of its regional, national and global perception. But defining the editorial axes to be developed will be the mission of those who will be in charge, not that of the foundation.

Who are the people you think you are putting in charge?

Quite quickly we called on a great press professional, Eric Hoesli, former director and editor-in-chief of Time, to help us prepare the project and the team. As it progressed, Eric Hoesli surrounded himself, with our agreement, with people who supported him in various aspects. We decided, at the last Foundation Council, a month ago, to entrust him with the presidency of the Board of Directors of the Time. By the time the takeover is official, on January 1, 2021, we will have appointed the other members of the Board, chosen from among those who have supported us so far: Abir Oreibi (specialist in the digital world, former director of Lift conferences), Yves Daccord (ex-director general of the ICRC, now at Harvard), Pascal Meyer (founder and CEO of Qoqa), Irène Challand (ex-producer of RTS) and Tibère Adler (ex-CEO of Edipresse and director of Heidi.news). This Board of Directors will be responsible in particular for appointing the chief editorial staff.

Will Tibère Adler be appointed CEO of Le Temps?

Tibère Adler is one of the best media management specialists to be found in Switzerland. He surrounded us in the finalization of this operation and he will very likely play an important operational role.

When cited abroad, Le Temps is generally referred to as a “center-right Swiss daily”. Will he change his political line?

The Aventinus Foundation does not give any indication in this matter. The quality of a newspaper is not measured by its positioning on the chessboard. Moreover, we have helped titles from all political persuasions. What matters to us is that the media we support participate in improving information in our region.

François Longchamp on November 2 in Geneva, the day of the signing of the purchase of Time by the Aventinus Foundation. Photo: Nicolas Righetti / Lundi13 for Heidi.news

What is the order of magnitude of the resources made available by Aventinus?

We do not communicate the figures but the means at our disposal allow the Time to consider its future with more serenity than most of the other press titles in Switzerland, and probably in Europe.

The Aventinus Foundation has already invested in Heidi.news and today announces its intention to buy it completely …

Indeed, we intend to acquire Heidi.news, who practices quality journalism perfectly compatible with our criteria. Experience Heidi.news is enriching for the French-speaking press and we have closely followed its development. Discussions are underway, and as the structure is simpler and the company smaller, the acquisition can likely be completed in the first half of 2021.

How are you going to articulate the complementarity between the two titles?

Heidi.news works differently. It is a medium that was thought from the outset in terms of flow, while Time is in a way the reflection of its history of printed daily. The idea for us is that everyone’s strengths benefit everyone.

Will they be brought together in the same editorial office, like L’Hebdo and Le Temps?

It will be on the Board of Directors of Time to decide. If we finalize this buyout, the intention would be to bring together the smallest and the largest shoots in the same ecosystem, in order to stimulate a flourishing biodiversity!

Will the editorial staff be installed as a recent rumor wants it, in the RTS Tower in Geneva, or in the Plaza cinema building, owned by the Wilsdorf Foundation, as another rumor wants?

I have never heard the rumor of the Plaza cinema … What is certain is that it will be installed in Geneva.

How do you respond to those who say that such philanthropic support represents a distortion of competition compared to the media which are actors in the private economy, with strong constraints on profitability?

It is an eternal debate that applies to all sectors for the benefit of public or philanthropic support, such as culture for example. We believe that the more fertile and varied the media environment, the better it will be, and this applies to all market players. We do not intend to buy other press titles. We believe that Tamedia’s diaries (24 hours, Geneva Tribune, Morning Sunday, etc, editor’s note) play in other niches, and benefit from other relationships in the advertiser market. Time does not have the same penetration, for example in local advertising markets. We must be delighted with the arrival of Look and of Watson on the Romand market, and hope that everyone can play their part.

Will the Aventinus Foundation make other acquisitions?

For us, this buyout is a very big operation and the foundation has no other resources than the voluntary energy of those who animate it. We will somehow reach our technical limits. Our ambition is not to grow and we do not conduct further discussions.

When they mentioned Aventinus’ projects, the German-speaking media regularly recalled the proximity of billionaire Frederik Paulsen with political and media players in French-speaking Switzerland, including Eric Hoesli. Did it bother you?

As Jacques Chirac said, “it affects me one without moving the other”.

Did you think, when you were a journalist, that you would one day become the boss of the press?

When I was young, I had a passion for politics, airplanes and the press. I became State Councilor and President of the airport. I created a newspaper when I was at school and I worked for a few months as a journalist … You can say that I am lucky to have been able to live many of my passions!

François Longchamp, bio express

  • 1963: Birth in Geneva

  • 1985: Law degree

  • 1990: Works in the health and social action department headed by Guy-Olivier Segond

  • 1999: Head of the regional section of the daily Time

  • 2002: Managing Director of Foyer-Handicap

  • 2002-2005: President of the Geneva Radical Party

  • 2005-2018: State Councilor (PLR)

  • 2019: President of the Aventinus Foundation