By: John K. Hartman
Some newspapers are abandoning daily home delivery, but The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch — circulation: 142,000 daily, 265,000 Sunday — shows no signs of following suit and believes its future lies in a new sub-tabloid format.
I, and more than a hundred other readers of Ohio’s award-winning capital city newspaper, responded to an offer in editor Benjamin J. Marrison’s July 1 column to get a first look at the new format on July 9 at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens Grand Atrium in Columbus.
We got to sample finger food and cocktails while Marrison and other Dispatch executives showed what they describe as the “formatted for life” paper will look like beginning Sept. 10 and why it will look that way.
In a nutshell, the Dispatch is giving up its broadsheet size (22 inches high by 11.5 inches wide) and reformatting to 14.6 inches by 10.5 inches — called three-around — in two months.
Typically, newspapers significantly smaller than broadsheet are called tabloids, though tabloids generally are 17 by 11 inches, slightly larger than the three-around. Dispatch executives avoided using the term tabloid, likely because the name is associated with lurid and exaggerated journalism — not what the steady but occasionally flashy Dispatch dispenses. (The paper was selected as the state’s top newspaper by the Associated Press of Ohio in three of the past four years, and its journalists have won many individual awards.)
The paper’s presses will be retrofitted to enable them to increase productivity by 50 percent by printing three pages in the former space of two pages. The three-around format will allow a 50 percent increase in color production and use 33 percent less newsprint.
The Dispatch has also signed an agreement to publish The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Kentucky Enquirer in the three-around format beginning this fall.
The preview session lasted nearly two hours and was a combination of seeking reader feedback and selling loyal readers on accepting the forthcoming changes.
Newspaper readers are creatures of habit, and any disturbance of that habit can result in them going elsewhere. Changes in Michigan — where 10 large and medium-sized newspapers have abandoned daily home delivery, thus breaking the habit — have caused upward of half the readers to take their eyeballs elsewhere (and not to the papers’ websites), and much advertising has been lost.
Editor Marrison told us that though the size of the pages would shrink, a number of pages would be added so that no significant space for content would be lost.
The new Dispatch will be more like a “daily news magazine,” he said.
We were given a prototype that offered many more freestanding sections than the current paper, which regularly offers four sections Monday through Wednesday, sometimes expanding Thursday through Saturday, until the multi-section paper on Sunday.
In addition to the front page, the prototype we were given contained the following sections, for what appeared to be a Sunday issue, in this order:
- Front page
- Nation & World
- Metro & State
- College Football (this would be fall only for Ohio State University football and central Ohio)
- Food & Life
Real Estate, Automobile, Classified, Entertainment/Television, Gardening, Travel, Health, Home Improvement, and other specialty sections were not included as freestanding but could be separate sections on Sundays and on other days when the paper is bulkier.
Marrison promised more compelling visual elements, including more color pages, with more action photographs on section fronts. He said jumps or continuations of stories from page one to inside pages would be severely limited, because readers do not like them.
Reader disdain for jumps was discovered three decades ago through the original research that led to the founding of USA Today Sept. 15, 1982, and is why the national newspaper still limits jumps from section fronts to inside pages.
Marrison said section fronts will contain one to three articles and one-paragraph summaries of one to three articles with references to inside pages where the entire article can be read. Indices will replace the Speed Read feature of summary paragraphs that currently appears on page 2 of the first section.
L-shaped advertising blocks will be seen on inside pages that benefit both news layout and ad visibility. More pictures of key reporters will accompany their articles, Marrison said, presumably to put a human face on the paper’s staff.
Marrison and other Dispatch executives, one of whom was at every table, were hoping for the audience’s approval. He said 80 percent of an earlier group liked the new format, and 70 percent liked it better than broadsheet.
When asked for a show of hands, most of the attendees indicated their approval, but I discerned a lack of enthusiasm and a desire to be thankful for the hospitality influencing our response. We were then asked to submit questions on note cards and were given the following answers by Marrison and his colleagues:
- The paper will still be wide enough for a birdcage liner, and the ink will still transfer to silly putty for temporary tattoos.
- There will be no immediate increase in subscription cost caused by the new format. Any future increases will be modest.
- The dispatch.com website will soon be behind a paywall, and non-subscribers will be allowed 10 free articles a month. Dispatch.com went behind a paywall once before several years ago, but the loss of Web audience was so great that it returned to its current free model. (The paywall plan is similar to The New York Times metered model, which began more than a year ago.)
- Seven-day subscribers to the print Dispatch may be asked to pay a small amount extra for full Web access. (As a seven-day subscriber, I object to this. I believe I am paying enough at $250+ a year.)
- Sections will range from four to 20 pages.
- Sunday advertising inserts will be larger than the folded newspaper and will stick out.
- Body type size and body type spacing between lines will remain the same as will headline style and size. Additional headline decks and subheads will be added to make up for the smaller pages, as needed. (Nonetheless, I expect headline point sizes to trend smaller as pages shrink.)
- Promotion of the new format began with television ads during the Olympics and increased a month before the launch.
- A special website touting the changes (formattedforlife.com) was established to help readers grow accustomed to the switch.
- Reporters will be asked to make their articles 10 percent “tighter.” (This is a clue that when all is said and done, there will be a bit less content in the three-around Dispatch, but most readers like shorter articles and do not read entire articles anyway.)
- The reporting and editing staff will not be expanded in the near future.
While Marrison and his colleagues went to great lengths to describe the move to three-around as “historic” and assiduously avoided the term “tabloid,” I would describe the move to a sub-tabloid size as “adaptive.” It will conserve newsprint, and it may increase readership of each copy by offering more sections to pass around in the home, office, coffee shop, and other social settings. If it reaches more eyeballs for advertisers and buttresses the paper’s finances in a time of newspaper industry financial stress, that would be “historic” in my opinion.
We loyal readers in attendance July 9 were a microcosm of what is ailing the newspaper industry. We were nearly all middle-aged or older, mostly white, mostly male, and mostly affluent. We are still a good audience for many advertisers, but our replacements — young, multicultural, female, lower and middle class — are not having the morning friendly deposited on their doorstep every day, and they increasingly are turning to online and mobile devices for their news.
I know from previous research I conducted (presented in 2011) that the Dispatch, its sister publications, and broadcast properties in Columbus have amassed, by far, the largest online and mobile audience of young adults in the metropolitan area. But now the Dispatch intends to charge for its online and mobile content in an era when people are used to free access. Dispatch.com will not exactly be “formatted” for young adult lives if it follows through with its plan to charge for access, but, as other newspapers are finding, it may be necessary for survival.
John K. Hartman is a professor of journalism at Central Michigan University and the author of two books about USA Today. He can be reached at email@example.com.
UPDATE: The Dispatch has since announced that launch of the new format will be delayed past Sept. 10 due to delays in the pressroom. A new expected launch date was not given.