It is becoming a commonplace that the ‘tabloid wars’ between broadsheet titles are transforming the newspaper market. There is a widespread belief that in producing tabloid editions the Independent and, to a lesser extent, the Times have stolen a brilliant march on their rivals. The Guardian is accused of having fallen asleep on the job, and one excitable commentator has suggested that the paper is doomed. The Daily Telegraph is also thought by many to be fatally missing out on the revolution. As soon as it finds a new buyer, it is suggested, it must unveil the tabloid edition with whose prototype frustrated executives have been tinkering.
Such is the general view in what used to be called Fleet Street. In large measure it is what I thought myself until a few weeks ago. But there are reasons for believing that the existing quality tabloids may not be everything they are cracked up to be. I should at this stage declare an interest as someone who is attempting to raise the money to launch a very upmarket newspaper which has been described in the press as tabloid.
No one could deny that the Independent has had a considerable success in going tabloid. Its sales have increased by 11 per cent over the past 12 months. Simon Kelner, the paper’s editor, certainly deserves our praise. But the newspaper’s increase in circulation is flattening out. Before very long — not least because the cost of producing two editions is a heavy burden on a paper already losing a lot of money — the Independent may only be available in tabloid form. If that happens, it could lose some of the gains it has made for two reasons. There may be a few readers of the paper who are so addicted to the larger form that they will switch to another broadsheet rather than read a tabloid. And, if the Independent goes exclusively tabloid, it will also lose a sales opportunity. In every newsagent at present there is a pile of tabloids and a pile of broadsheets, and this double presence may attract the hand of the casual buyer.
Still, going tabloid has undoubtedly worked for the Independent, and I expect it will hang on to most of its circulation increase, at any rate in the short term. Has it worked for the Times, which followed the Independent’s example, and started producing a tabloid edition five months ago? It is not obvious that it has. The paper’s circulation has declined by nearly 5 per cent over the past year. Very possibly the fall would have been greater if the paper had not produced a tabloid edition. Sales are said to be robust in London, where some commuters welcome the smaller size, but there is evidence of resistance to the tabloid form elsewhere. My own feeling is that the tabloid Times is an unsatisfactory newspaper, and my heart sinks on those days on which my newsagent delivers it to me, and correspondingly rises when I am able to buy the broadsheet version. The tabloid looks cramped and is typographically undistinguished. Its sometimes shorter stories and more sensational page leads make it more dumbed down than the broadsheet. The Independent is more convincing, though in terms of its design it looks like a compressed broadsheet. Perhaps this will change when the paper goes exclusively tabloid.
What of the Guardian and Daily Telegraph? I imagine that Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s editor, may privately wish that his paper had gone tabloid before the Independent, and reaped the rewards in increased sales. As it is, the paper has lost just over 6 per cent of its circulation over the past 12 months, most of which has switched to the tabloid Independent. Mr Rusbridger has been criticised both inside and outside the paper for sitting on his hands, but it seems to me that, having missed the opportunity to be the prime mover, he has been wise not to produce a ‘me too’ tabloid in the manner of the Times. In a recent interview he hinted that the Guardian may be contemplating a Le Monde-size paper — a so-called Berliner — though there are as yet no presses capable of producing this format in Britain. This would be a better solution than dashing into the market with an inadequate tabloid. Mr Rusbridger may be playing a long game.
As for the Daily Telegraph, my guess is that many of its older and more conservative readers would show even more resistance to the tabloid form than have some readers of the Times. It is true that a few of the paper’s readers have defected to the tabloid version of the Times and even the Independent, and its sales have decreased by a little over 3 per cent over the past 12 months. But this hardly constitutes an avalanche. The Telegraph’s management cannot go ahead and produce a tabloid version, with all the enormous associated costs, until the identity of the new owner of the paper is known. If Daily Mail and General Trust were to be the successful bidder, it would surely not wish to pitch a tabloid Daily Telegraph against the Daily Mail. But any new owner of the paper would be wise to think very carefully before producing a tabloid edition.
Of course I believe that there can be a successful quality tabloid in this country — obviously I do. There are many successful European examples, and the Independent appears to have pulled it off. But the tabloid revolution is not going to carry everything before it. I doubt whether the Times, which made huge circulation increases as a result of starting the price war in 1993, will gain very much from joining the tabloid wars. Not all readers of existing quality papers want a tabloid, and some positively do not.
Last week I suggested that there are millions of people in this country, of whom I am certainly one, who would be happy never to read another word about David Beckham’s love life. An ICM poll for the Guardian has found that 43 per cent of respondents do not care about the footballer’s private life. That would suggest, if there are roughly 44 million adults in this country, that nearly 19 million people would welcome a Beckham-free media.
It is a wonderful thought, but can it really be true? In the same poll, 85 per cent of respondents said that disclosures about Beckham’s alleged flings should not have been published. It is difficult to square this with the reported increase in the sales of some red-top tabloid newspapers which have offered voluminous coverage of Beckham, Posh and the rest of the grisly gang. The News of the World, which has about 11 million readers — as opposed to buyers — claims an extra 100,000 sales on each of two successive Sundays when it blitzed us with Beckham.
This suggests that some people tell polling organisations one thing and do something rather different. Some of us — and there are millions — really do not want to read about Beckham, not so much because we feel his privacy has been threatened as because we couldn’t give a damn. But there are millions of others claiming they are not interested, and objecting to his privacy being invaded, who cheerfully pick up their copy of the News of the World or the Sun.