The press gang
We’ve all been there. You’re sitting on the train, looking everywhere but in anybody else’s eyes, and you reach for your paper to escape the pressure cooker of the daily commute. You pick it up, look at the first page, peruse the print, then face a difficult decision. You want to read the rest, but how the hell do you unfurl something with the page span of an Albatross’ wings in an area with all the space afforded to battery chickens?
You’re already wrestling with the guy next to you for supremacy in the battle of the armrest, while your other elbow’s only about an inch away from that builder’s family foundations. It’s a recurring nightmare that only the most unselfconscious, origami blessed or downright ignorant seem able to deal with.
However, due to a new trend that is becoming increasingly fashionable on Fleet Street, such dilemmas may soon be a thing of the past. We’re talking, of course, about the broadsheet tabloids.
Trail-blazed by The Independent, this hybrid newspaper format has come as a welcome relief to all of those who yearn for the usability of a red top, but would rather not be confronted at 8am with pictures of Jordan’s super-sized saddle bags. It’s certainly worked wonders for the Indy, which has seen it’s circulation rise to almost 225,000 (excluding bulks), a year on year increase of over 18%. Speculation now suggests that the title will imminently consign it’s broadsheet version to the great big paper pulper in the sky - a development presaged by the fact that the tabloid’s big brother is no longer resident in Wales, Ireland, Scotland and, from last month, the Granada region.
With The Times, and north of the border the Scotsman, playing catch-up behind these bold strides towards a new format (shall we call it tabsheet or broadloid?) what does the future hold? Is the hybrid just a passing fad or rather a new style that’s destined never to go out of fashion?
Mediavest board director Paul Catlow seems to think it’s the new black. \"I think the format is here to stay,\" is his tailored response. \"Initial circulation trends suggest the format has been well received by readers. The Independent’s bold decision to be first in the market seems to have paid dividends with circulation increases looking very healthy.\"
It’s an opinion shared by Catlow’s media independent contemporaries. Martin Heywood of Leeds based Drama notes, \"judging by the number of visible readers you come across with the new tabloids, I’d say they’re definitely here to stay.\" A sentiment echoed by Mediaedge:cia’s Cherry Jackson, who believes \"there’s no going back.\"
Although Catlow and co temper their enthusiasm with a ‘time will tell’ caveat, it’s obvious that the media agencies are impressed with this evolutionary step forward. To them it appears to be very much a case of ‘size does matter’, although in this respect (but unfortunately not in all) small really is beautiful.
\"The ease of the read has to be the key advantage,\" says Catlow. \"I also think the compact product is more aesthetically pleasing and presents a more modern image - this may help break down some of the barriers which exist among readers who are daunted by the broadsheet format.\" Heywood again agrees extolling the \"manageability\" of the papers, while adding, \"for advertisers, assuming they don’t downsize their ads, a traditional 25x4 should be more visible in the new format as it has a greater share of the page.\"
Even the competition seems to approve of the new formula, as a very magnanimous Gary Freilick of The Daily Telegraph proves; \"the main advantages for the reader is that the physical size makes it easier to read. The main advantages for the media owner is that it will attract a younger/female audience.\" However, as you may expect from a sales chief at a paper that, for the time being at least, remains resolutely broad of sheet, Freilick opines that \"the current compact does need to evolve. The layout is heavy and cluttered and (are you listening Mr Catlow?) not particularly aesthetically pleasing to the eye.\"
But Freilick is not a sales cat that just has his claws out for the sake of it. His opinion of the tabsheet’s (shall we go with that one then) is informed, balanced and (almost) free from bias. He observes, \"I think it is fair to assume that the compact is here to stay. The commuter belt of London is obviously core to it’s success, but I believe it will appeal to the younger, female professionals who want a quality read but will not buy a broadsheet due to its physical size.\" However he does see some danger in downsizing:
\"This is where The Times and The Independent have to be very careful. There are perception problems of a tabloid not being a quality newspaper - which could erode their AB audiences. (And) what we always forget about is the advertisers - the marketing director who spends his budget expecting to reach a specific audience. Will the compact deliver the right number of the right target audience?\"
Freilick’s reticence to cheer on the format from the sidelines is hardly surprising, especially seeing that most observers believe The Telegraph will plough ahead with it’s traditional vehicle, rather than limbering up to go bandwagon jumping. Jon O’Donnell from The Mail on Sunday certainly seems to think so anyway:
\"I think some broadsheets will have more success at going tabloid than others - I cannot see it working for titles like The Telegraph as I don’t think their readers would stomach it.\" Which in O’Donnell’s opinion may not be a bad thing; \"There is every chance that The Telegraph will remain the only traditional broadsheet in the market, which would no doubt be of benefit to them.\" Mediaedge’s Jackson agrees, with the first part of the argument at least, stating, \"will The Telegraph readers accept a compact? We can’t see it.\" And adds; \" It’ll be interesting to see how the format works for the more traditional titles - like The Scotsman.\"
With the seemingly contagious trend towards downsizing gathering pace across the printed media, it’s begs the question; can broadsheets survive if they don’t follow suit? Mediavest’s Catlow believes the jury’s still out: \"It’s difficult to say,\" he says without difficulty, \"but eventually the reader will decide and those titles who have observed from a distance may be forced to follow suit if the new size continues to have positive effects on circulation.\"
Freilick is sceptical, \"It’s still early days for the compact and while The Independent has shown healthy growth in circulation, it is from a low base. As for The Times, once the initial curiosity settles down I don’t believe its long-term success will be due to the change in format. The February ABC was down on December 2003, which must be disappointing considering the amount of investment promoting the compact.\"
Jon O’Donnell seems to be enjoying the uncertainty from the comfort of his established tabloid home, and particularly the dilemma facing that other, as yet unmentioned, great British broadsheet institution; The Guardian. \"It will be interesting to see what move The Guardian makes next,\" he says, conjuring up images of a Bond villain stroking his feline. \"It has seen relative success from its competitors and still maintained its stance on not going tabloid, which, circulation-wise, has proved damaging. Alan Rusbridger has said that he is not ruling out a change though, just that they will not be going tabloid. So, knowing The Guardian, I would fully expect them to produce a triangular, 3D newspaper out of sheer bloody-mindedness.\"
In a market that, format wise at least, has been a traditionally stable one, The Independent’s crafty side step has rocked the entire newspaper boat. From a rather staid scene has emerged a general sense of confusion and a great deal of excitement, leaving observers to ruminate over who’ll be going under the scalpel next to shed that bulk they once treasured so highly. Or, in Martin Heywood’s case, to ponder the issue - \"imagine how thick a tabloid Sunday Times would be... then consider the difficulties of home delivery!\" Leading us to think that it’s perhaps time you gave up the paper-round Martin. You wouldn’t want to put you back out now, would you?