David Butterfield

The Guardian’s tabloid switch is a big mistake

The Guardian's tabloid switch is a big mistake
Text settings

'Since you’re here...we have a small favour to ask’. These words may ring a bell for you – or just sound the spam alarm, coming as they do at the end of any Guardian online piece. For times are hard in Graunville: in recent years, the Guardian has lost tens of millions annually and, as a result, the paper has got out the begging bowl. Now its editor, Katharine Viner, has announced the latest cost-cutting ruse: lopping the paper down – from January next year – to a tabloid format. This is a great shame. Viner claims that the shrinkage would preserve ‘the same amount of journalism’ and went on to justify the change by saying:

The role of a newspaper in people’s lives is changing all the time. The role of a tangible, physical object in a digital world is really interesting to think about what’s that for, so maybe it’s more explanatory, maybe it’s more keepable, maybe it’s more visual beautiful - that’s the way we’re thinking about it.

It's true that print media does need to do something different with the emergence of lightning-paced online news. But shouldn’t that change try and take advantage of its medium, placing in readers’ hands arresting articles of longer length and longer conception, rather than simply be about (literally) cutting margins?

What's more, the idea that a tabloid size is somehow modern is poppycock: we’re not living in the 1950s. Further alignment with other ‘quality tabloids’ is also a regression: the more collectivist and similar newspapers become – in format as well as content – the more they’ll struggle. Moving to a tabloid intensifies the worst kinds of competition, not least of which paper best fits the cat litter tray.

The real reason, of course, is to save money. The paper’s printing, as tentatively announced in June, will now be outsourced to the Trinity Mirror group, who can’t handle Berliners. But they will be cheaper, so bring on the tabloid dress! But hang on, is that Trinity Mirror, the self-same publisher of the Sunday People, the paper that the Guardian declared should be put ‘out of its misery’ a few years ago? The paper whose headlines have included ‘500,000 migrants headed to Britain’ (April 2015), ‘Porn star: truth about my night with Ukip Nigel’ (April 2017) and the disgraceful and discredited ‘‘Top Tory killed’ girl, 15’ (January 2015)? What self-respecting newspaper could support such journalism? Perhaps, in these times of grassroots scaremongering, the Guardian will now be targeted by the ‘Stop Funding Hate’ movement – which has precious little time for democracy or public choice (its two main targets – the Daily Mail and Sun – match the readership of the other major British newspapers combined). Even if the Guardian dodges that particular bullet, it surely won’t escape the typical snobbish attitude that tabloids represent low-brow, small-minded thought, not the wide-ranging, broad-shouldered broadsheet. The paper itself has previously said that the format is not ‘in the tradition of the Guardian’, which should seek instead ‘to aim high’. So keep an eye out also for the #stopfundinghatefulformats campaign barricading the presses.

The Guardian’s claim is that saving many millions of pounds on printing will allow renewed focus on journalism; in reality, it’s one of many compromises to help the paper try and become profitable again. But the paper’s problems are not unique: all British newspapers have falling print circulations – save the Telegraph and the Times, which climb slowly. The Guardian is losing readers rapidly, and now approaches 140,000. Like all papers, it is also suffering from the dramatic drop in print advertisement revenue, as Google and Facebook increasingly dominate this sector. So something drastic really is needed.

But the inevitable consequences of downsizing are unlikely to help. The Times and the Independent really did change when shrunk to tabloid size in 2003; any regular reader before and after saw that some elements of daily news became easier and freer, others much harder and markedly rarer. To pretend that journalism does not adapt to fit its published format is absurd. Now the Guardian will simply follow these titles in becoming tabloid-only – albeit via an incredibly expensive stepping stone. The set-up cost for the Berliner Era in 2005 was £80m, including the installation of bespoke presses for £50m; these are now to be scrapped, with the loss of some fifty jobs. That last change in format did little to help: after a brief spike from its novelty, the circulation has fallen steadily since.

The slide continues. The Guardian's odd financial arrangement is hardly helping matters. The paper continues to offer open access for all its content online (albeit with the ubiquitous begging cap), but only through the increasingly exacting support of its dedicated print readers. In 2006, the paper cost 70p; it now costs £2. A paywall would considerably change the picture, not only securing the quality of its output in print and online, but also avoiding the starvation of its physical readership. Once the latter dies, the paper perishes with it. Consider the sad fable of the (once really excellent) Independent.

Instead, the Guardian should profit from the advice of its greatest editor, C.P. Scott (in post 1872-1929), who wrote on the paper’s centenary in 1921 that:

A newspaper has two sides to it. It is a business, like any other, and has to pay in the material sense in order to live. But it is much more than a business; it is an institution; it reflects and it influences the life of a whole community...The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard. Comment also is justly subject to a self-imposed restraint. It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair. This is an ideal.

Such an ideal is worth revisiting: a paper that reflects a community and seeks to host open debate on its pages. It’s rather hard to say what community the Guardian now connects with; if it’s in any sense geographical, it will be far removed from Manchester, the city it left in 1964 after 143 years. That separation proved chaotic – and believe it or not the paper came close to merging with the Times. These days there’s plenty of hackneyed and childish talk about ‘Guardian readers’ – as there is about ‘Daily Mail readers’ – but it does seem an increasingly closed shop.

So here’s a more obvious, long-term solution to cut costs: it should return to its erstwhile spiritual homeland, Manchester, where it could easily find attractive premises at a quarter of the cost of its current lavish offices in north London. A move outside the capital would also help the paper offer an intellectual and educated assessment of the world away from London’s media bubble, speaking to Britons from all walks of life. If even that doesn’t do enough to help, it could even look to another period in its history – the glory years of 1836-55 – when it appeared as a biweekly, on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

One more change would do it well. The Guardian has often spoken of ‘broadsheet values’. These are most obviously manifested by serious investment in long-term journalism: support of all aspects of current affairs, of overseas correspondents, of investigative journalism, of full-time contracts. As it is, jobs are on the chopping block and instability is rife. In such a context, transforming to tabloid size is meaningless meddling. A truly bold move would be to restore the broadsheet, a format whose very scope shows the editorial confidence and suggestive power to promote immersive and challenging ‘longer reads’. A compact tabloid, by contrast, can only keep the reader thinking that the grass may be greener on the next page. But for the Guardian, it probably isn’t.