FEATURE 

And then there were none?

First the Independent, next The Times – which broadsheet will be next? And in twelve months’ time, will there be any left? Peter Preston, former editor of The Guardian presents a broader perspective on the tabloid - sorry, "compact" - frenzy.

By Peter Preston

Here we go again! A compact Independent showing signs of growth; a compact Times posting some buoyant figures at last; a Telegraph and Guardian both beavering to join the race. It is a heady, exciting time after years of boredom in the broadsheet market. When price-cutting stopped, what came next? Tabloid came next.

But hold your horses as well as your breath. The myth of tabloid renewal is far stronger than the reality. It began in 1971 when a new, young editor of the Daily Mail called David English turned his failing newspaper into what he called a "compact" and then began its long, hard march to profitability and success. Tabloid was suddenly Fleet Street’s magic word. Tabloid was the kiss of life. The Mail’s great competitor, the Daily Express, shrunk its size, too. Morning and evening newspapers all around Britain followed suit. Tabloid was the future.

So much for legend, though. The mythmakers forget to mention many things - among them that David English came to the Mail from the Daily Sketch, a puny 800,000 tabloid which thereupon closed Has a changed shape rescued the Express, down 3,4 million in 1971 to 940,000 or so today? Has it, for that matter, staunched the decline in regional circulation? Is it the wonder drug that will push the Daily Mirror back over two million or save The People from the perdition which polished off the Sketch?

The plain fact, of course, is that you can just as easily be a compact failure as a compact triumph. Readers still buy skilful editorial, good writing and great pictures rather than newsprint by the foot. David English’s Mail was a winner because it was sharper and more relevant to an expanding middle market full of social and economic aspirations. There’s absolutely no guarantee that any of the broadsheets which seek to follow him three decades later will be able to pull the same trick. Beware the false optimism of early days and frail figuring.

Broadsheets: a dying breed in Europe

And yet there is something solid, something logical, lurking behind the turmoil. Look round Europe at many of the finest quality papers there ... El Pais and El Mundo in Spain, Liberation and Le Monde in France, La Republicca in Rome. And more papers in their bracket change every year. You won’t find a broadsheet left in Scandinavia soon. Why such ferment? Because the evidence (from Scandinavia first, as it happens) is that young, prosperous, busy people - precisely the sort of people who’ve ceased to read newspapers - find tabloid a size that fits their lifestyle: not just because of overcrowded buses and trains on the way to work, but because the success of the Metro morning freesheets, which started In Stockholm, reveals a taste for the speed and variety that tabloid can supply.

Take a mature tabloid like El Pais in Madrid. It’s a high quality, serious paper - but it’s also the best seller in Spain’s national market. It doesn’t shout or go in for big headlines. But it’s neat and crisp and the balance of features and comment ensures that you get the fix that every good tabloid supplies: a feeling of pace and variety as you turn the pages. The subject range of a modern serious paper, moreover, fits tabloid much more easily than you’d suppose.

‘Serious’ in the broadsheet markets means covering topics and areas which TV and radio often leave to one side. If you’re a Spanish-speaking reader, for instance, you may want news from Latin America, from Venezuala, Chile, Argentina. If you’re a British reader with Asian ancestry, you may want to follow India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in some detail. But none of this is easy on a broadsheet pages. A full page of special interest is too much; a genuflection down a single column is too little. Lay-out subs have to construct pages like jobbing builders, then; coverage is a pile of bricks stacked high and ruled off from each other with little straps or logos. It produces some notably unlovely results. Yet tabloid, taking a special interest per page, labelling and projecting, deals with all of those problems. It doesn’t - or needn’t - mean dumbing down. Rather, it is what comes naturally.

Dumbing down?

Perhaps we haven’t quite seen that in Britain yet. So far the broadsheet reformers have been obsessed with the need not to dumb down, which has meant - for the Independent and The Times - taking almost every word printed in the broadsheet version when you re-format into tabloid. If the words are the same, how can one size be dumber than another? The old fear of turning tabloid always been sending a signal of lower intelligence and greater sensationalism, of damaging the brand and the image. Printing two versions as a choice for the reader, without any noticeable change of text, addresses that fear directly. And perhaps, on early results, the fear was overdone. Readers who get the Times’ broadsheet and compact delivered at home rather haphazardly don’t seem much bothered which size they receive. They can’t quite understand, in short, what all the fuss was about. They, and their Independent opposite numbers, are perfectly happy with compact. The conversion rate of choice on the Indie is tabloid by a two-to-one margin. The Times, from a bigger reader base, seems to be doing equally well. Reader rejection isn’t a significant part of either paper’s equation.

But remember that the events of this winter are a beginning, not an end. Remember to follow the logic of change, different for every broadsheet, through to its logical conclusion. Remember, too, that re-formatting is a mechanical exercise which stales with repetition.

Costs of split-production

You won’t feel the full force of tabloid potential, the full creative Monty, until compact becomes at least the core edition. Will the Independent at that stage want to persevere with dual-sizing? Will the broadsheet bite the dust? I would guess so, and in weeks rather than months. Simon Kelner at the Indie put this whole show on the road. He has less problem with bulk and supplements and job advertising than any of his rivals - which also means that he has a revenue problem which may grow oppressive if the costs of formatting and double printing last too long. Expect a compact Indie flying solo before the first daffodils. And expect some very hard thinking at The Times.

The fact is that, even for Rupert Murdoch, the current split-production state has as many headaches as it has opportunities. Not quite all of the broadsheet Times fits in its mini-mode. The big job advertising days produce 156 or more tabloid pages, which is an onerous weight when you drop it on the Tube platform. Yet in terms of building on success, and not getting caught in no-man’s-land as the Telegraph and Guardian move, The Times will more and more find itself driven to making a core compact, altering page running orders more dramatically, picking pictures with tabloid impact and letting the ancestral broadsheet accumulation of law reports and court and social go hang. Can it afford to go so far, so fast? But, equally, can it afford to duplicate so much effort and cost for ever?

And if those are tough questions for The Times, they’re no easier for The Guardian and Telegraph. The Guardian - which might, on its reputation have been first into this ring - has even worse job ad problems than The Times. How do you call a 220-page tabloid "compact"? The Telegraph may not have the same amount of jobs to wrestle with, but it does have the most elderly readership profile of any national (and a proprietorial problem on its hands). Running a tabloid alongside a broadsheet may cost it ten or twelve million pounds a year. It may also alienate tens of thousands of county twin set readers. It is a vexing decision, taken apprehensively.

Yet what is the alternative? The Telegraph is already number three, not number one, in big city commuter territories like Greater London. Doing nothing is no sort of option. Nor can The Guardian afford to be any more phlegmatic. Lose too many sales and the job ads will go anyway. This is a game where everybody has to play and nobody can be sure of the end result. Will quality tabloids look too unassertive on newstands, stacked against Mails and Expresses? Will the Mail itself - David English’s creation - lose out as the compact clones launch their attack? Or will this just be price-cutting all over again, much ado about very little at close of play?

Reckon it serious, I think. Reckon it expensive and challenging and testing. But don’t reckon on outcomes yet. The final pages aren’t schemed yet.