Tabloidisation: was it worth it?

In late 2003, the Independent’s move set Fleet Street’s pulse racing. A wave of optimism swept through the industry. Here, surely, was that elusive elixir of circulation. Heady times, but, five years on, how does the newspaper landscape look in the cold light of day? Was changing shape the right thing to do, asks Peter Preston.

By Peter Preston

We were all getting very excited five years ago. The rumours swirled and then became seemingly hard fact. Broadsheet newspapers were on their way out. Tabloid, even at the quality end of Fleet Street, was the shape of the future. Young people - the ones who weren't reading proper newspapers anyway - liked a smaller sheet and a quicker paced agenda. It's what they were used to on the net and from all those Metro free-sheets burgeoning in city after city. Here were papers you could read on a crowded train without breaking the ribs of the guy sitting next to you. If you wanted to reach that younger, richer, commuting audience of Fleet Street dreams - if, in short, you wanted a future - then size mattered hugely.

Thus, late in 2003, the Independent began printing trial editions in tabloid, allegedly to see whether readers liked them. Answer: affirmative. By 2004, after a bit of a wake-up call from Rupert Murdoch (who knows a thing or two about tabloids) the Times had gone a similar route. And though the Guardian likes to be different and chose a Berliner size for its 2005 transition, the background arguments were essentially similar. Only the Telegraph (and FT) stood to one side as the top end of the market transformed itself. It was a pell-mell time of expensive change and vaulting ambition.

And now? Most pundits today would scoff at such hopefulness. For sales, on the face of it, have just gone on falling. The (at least assumed) characteristic fruits of tabloidisation are a few months of circulation success, puffed by curiosity and marketing, followed by many months of disappointment as the balloon subsides. Been there, tried that. It wasn't quite the wonder cure that the conventional wisdom of 2003 portended.

Muddy waters

But pause before you move too easily from hope to despair. In particular, make sure that an inevitably complex situation isn't simplified into some cartoon conclusion. For many other influential things have been affecting the national newspaper market through the middle noughties – and, above all, the tabloid revolution needs context if we're going to assess it accurately.

How do you make that assessment? Only with difficulty, of course: there are too many variables to muddy the debate. But try taking the ABC figures for September 2003, the month before any kind of change actually happened, and comparing them with September 2007, a four-year transition test you'll be able to update for yourself this autumn.

In September 2003, the Independent (before morphing into tabloid trailblazer) sold a pretty measly 218,567 copies - only a thousand or so up on August, and 2.97% down on September 2002. The glory days of the late eighties, when the Indie was touching 400,000 and putting the wind up more established qualities, were long gone. The change to tabloid wasn't some leisurely, carefully researched move. It was instinctive, and possibly a little desperate. The Indie, with the youngest age profile amongst the qualities, had to remain a youthful buy. Simon Kelner, its innovative editor, had found a way. The relaunch was going to get every ounce of marketing pizazz that Tony O'Reilly's cost-conscious group could afford. And there was a feeling of lift-off in the beginning. 218,000 quickly turned to 265,000 or so. Perhaps everything euphoric we'd said about tabloids was true?

Alas, not exactly. The surge soon stalled and began to slither backwards: to 251,420 in September '07. The pundits who'd hailed Kelner's triumph professed greater admiration for a stable and substantially unchanged broadsheet Telegraph, still top of the quality shop (890,973) by miles.

Core values

Look a little closer, though, and strip circulation's well-known grey areas out of the figuring: take away bulks, take away foreign 'sales'. Then see what you've got left as cash of any sort crosses UK or Irish counters. The Independent in 2003 sold 141,780 of these purer copies; that was the core. In 2007, the core was still well up at 163,899, even though bulks had swollen and foreign copies added nearly 15,000 extra. There was, in short, a real and still positive result, though the overall newspaper market was falling.

And the Times, following a year later? The broadsheet Times in September 2003 had an overall ABC of 632,272, including 73,170 bulks and foreigns, giving a core figure of 559,104. Four years later, those figures had become 654,482, with 86,450 bulks and foreigns - leaving a core of 568,032. Another plus, another positive result. The two daily broadsheets who summoned up the blood had something to show for their effort in an otherwise depressing market.

The Guardian, last into the process of change and standing a little aside from the tabloid melee, couldn't be quite so happy. Its 2003 score of 395,304 - with 50,854 bulks and foreign copies - left a core of 344,450. Four years on, the total had dropped to 367,546 with a core of only 304,699. Not much of a reward for £100 million spent on presses and re-designs, but with at least a balancing growth in online readership that made it Britain's best-read net paper by far. Perhaps you couldn't have such growth in one part of the forest without losing a few trees elsewhere. Or perhaps the Telegraph had been very clever not to change at all.

Pause at this stage, though, and pass the microscope. September 2003: the broadsheet Telegraph sells 934,341. It reports 37,906 foreign sales and 19,522 bulks. The core sale is therefore 876,913. And four years on? Total sale, 890,973; 53,572 foreign copies and 89,469 bulks. Core residual sale: 748,941. Over 125,000 copies have gone missing. The supposed triumph of broadsheet endurance looks a bit on the frail side after all.

The Sundays

Repeating a similar exercise for Sunday papers isn't quite so clear cut, perhaps, because promotional bursts can alter a month's figures starkly: but it's still worth noting that core movements there don't invalidate the daily picture. The Independent on Sunday had a 137,899 core in September 2003 as a broadsheet, and a 135,887 core four years later as a tabloid. The Observer changed to Berliner and didn't do quite as well: 401,787 in 2003 to 387,479 in 2007. But the unchanged broadsheets came away rather worse than that. The Sunday Telegraph core shrank from 674,454 to 557,509 - and the mighty engine of the Sunday Times began with 1,235,859 and ended at 1,150,708.

Now, this little exercise began with health warnings, and it's sensible to keep issuing them every five minutes. It glosses over changes in cut-price subscription copies, which the Telegraph group in particular has been eager to foster. It pays no account of the mushroom growth in high quality colour, particularly in the Guardian and the Observer. It doesn't explore the rapid growth in cover prices over the period - 25 pence added all round, way ahead of inflation. And two other huge factors have to be born constantly in mind.

Let’s not forget the frees ...

One, as the editor of the Sun told the House of Lords recently, is the continuing explosion in the freesheet market: a morning Metro distributing 1.2 million or so nationwide, City AM and two London evening free-sheets throwing a million more into the pot, major regionals such as the Manchester Evening News producing ever bigger free editions. It's obvious to everybody in the newspaper business that this is having a massive impact on conventional circulation conventionally measured - and so, of course, has parallel growth in free internet news sites.

... or the web

When - to take figures from the Sun to the Guardian - you've got between 12 million and 19 million unique users logging on to your website every month, there has to be an effect on paid sales. We don't know yet quite how - or when - this turmoil will fade. Some editors (say, Will Lewis at the Telegraph) see the web as expanding and strengthening Telegraph readership worldwide, almost like a super marketing tool. Some editors (say, Alan Rusbridger at the Guardian) see print slipping totally out of the equation as the digital version supplants all others. But at least register an impact, an attraction of younger readers so that the Telegraph's website readership has an average age eleven years younger than the paper, and a style of presentation that inevitably creates a wider context of its own.

Put the jigsaw pieces since 2003 together, then, and you see a bigger picture. The tabloid trend has thundered on, in nationals, in the regions and, perhaps crucially, in free-sheets; it is the shape now that every sort of reader treats as normality. Those two million-plus new frees didn't even hesitate over which size to choose. There was no decision worth the name left to take. And even variations on this theme are changing their mind. Vanguardia in Barcelona, perhaps mainland Europe's most iconic Berliner, has just shrunk to tabloid and joined the rest of the Spanish pack. Even the detailed argument there would seem to be over.

Is it a winning argument in tune with early hopes? Not exactly, and certainly not generally: look at the red top market to see that shape can't rescue you from decline. Note, too, that most quality sales figures are still slithering downwards, so that this coming September's five-year test will certainly carry no cheer. Yet, even so, reality deserves to have the last word here.

The two upmarket national dailies who turned tabloid first still have something to give them heart. The residual broadsheet is biggest percentage loser. That doesn't prove the full Monty of expectation, and nor does it blow crisis away from the printed word. But, in its willingness to change profoundly, to think the business of news and pace and reader demand through from square one, it does show that getting size right is part of an answer to a question so complex that, to be honest, we probably haven't quite formulated it yet.