Will London’s Tab Experiment Affect U.S. Broadsheets?

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By: Richard Brunelli

The global newspaper industry is watching to see what’s going to happen next in Merry Old England. Last September in London, the 17-year-old broadsheet The Independent launched a same-day tabloid twin of itself. Two months later the 218-year-old Times of London followed suit with its own downsized clone.

But are tabloid-sized papers really necessary in all markets? Newspaper veteran Stuart Garner — who has held publishing posts in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom — doesn’t think so. For him it’s all about the content.

“Anyone who has ridden on a Metro North railroad train into Manhattan in the morning sees thousands of people who can quite happily handle the broadsheet New York Times despite the lack of space,” he told INMA. “The point is they read The New York Times for the content, and they seem to find it just right for them.”

The International Newspaper Marketing Association (INMA) late last week released an 8,000-word, 34-digital-page tome titled “Does Size Matter For Newspapers? The Trend Toward Compact Formats.” The report — written by Dawn McMullan and Earl J. Wilkinson, project manager and executive director of INMA, respectively — is an exhaustive take on an issue that is becoming sexier by the day as the traditional broadsheet dynamics are holding less sway with publishers and readers alike.

In newspaper markets around the world where broadsheets are the norm — like many cities in the U.S. — the term “tabloid” stirs up images of bombastic headlines and sensational reporting. But in other parts of the globe, tabloids, or compacts, are the standard, according to the INMA report.

In Scandinavia, Latin America, Central Europe and South Africa, tabloids dominate. Of the free commuter newspapers and upscale young adult newspapers launched in Europe, Latin America, North America, Asia, and the South Pacific since 1995, all are tabs or smaller. And in Austria, newspapers have been published in compact formats for decades.

Conversely, in the United States, less than 1% of the nearly 1,500 paid dailies are tabloid. Those that exist — papers like the Denver Rocky Mountain News, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, Philadelphia Daily News and the Boston Herald — are in markets with more than one paper.

But for the majority of publishers and newspaper analysts outside America, recent moves by The Times and The Independent make a world of sense. “It is difficult to think of any other mass-market product that is not produced in all shapes and sizes, in recognition of the fact that consumers come in all shapes and sizes,” Ally Palmer, director of Palmer Watson Design, an Edinburgh, Scotland-based design consulting firm, told INMA.

Palmer said that his firm had been trying to get a client to consider going tabloid for about 18 months with little success … until the recent raising of the stakes in London.

“This is a normal pattern, as newspaper people tend to be very conservative and generally wait for someone else to make the first move,” he added. “So changes like the ones we are seeing in London end up being newspapers responding to each other rather than trying to be innovative.”

One of the chief motivators in the move to smaller dimensions is that compact newspapers are more reader-friendly, especially for commuters, young readers and women. According to the report, Ivan Fallon, The Independent’s chief executive, told a newspaper industry conference in late 2003 that his tabloid version was outselling his broadsheet 58% to 42% in the London region. Part of the problem for the larger broadsheets might be explained by traffic changes introduced in London at the beginning of last year that altered commuting and, therefore, reading habits.

Another major issue publishers face as they consider possible format changes is appeasing advertisers. Chris Kubas, vice president of Kubas Consultants, a Toronto-based consulting firm that helps clients price newspaper advertising and design rate structures, said new advertising paradigms must be considered. According to the report, he contended that compact-format newspapers should be sold like magazines — not like conventional newspapers.

“If a newspaper’s format is going to change, so should a newspaper’s advertising system,” he said. Broadsheets that consider a more compact size, Kubas said, “will be in a position to generate about the same revenue per page, but with the lower costs and improved operating practices that come from a tabloid.

“The trend to tabloids actually promises more good news for newspapers than bad news,” added Kubas. “I do not believe the trend to tabloids will be a tsunami that obliterates broadsheets in the near term. I do believe the trend to tabloids will usher in better ways to sell, package and price newspaper advertising.”

Newspaper designer Mario Garcia said in the INMA report that the bottom line in the debate over size is simple: Give the reader what he or she wants.

“Newspapers need to evolve, need to do what it takes to continue to attract and interest readers,” he said “And, most importantly — and this is where I like the experiments in London with simultaneous broadsheet/tabloid editions — newspapers need to advance beyond the comfort zone. They need to take what they do best — providing timely information — and put it into whatever format the user wishes to have.”

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