First the Independent goes tabloid, now the Times follows suit, though both papers are still available in broadsheet form. The Daily Telegraph and the Guardian may not far be behind. What is behind this revolution? There has been a decline in quality newspaper sales over the past couple of years, and publishers have increasingly felt that some sort of shake-up was necessary to revive the market. The Independent was in a particular trough, with sales at less than half the level of the early Nineties, and needed to do something dramatic. It has certainly succeeded. Overall sales have gone up, and in some areas the paper’s tabloid version is outselling the broadsheet one. The Times evidently felt it was in danger of missing out. On Wednesday a tabloid edition was introduced in the Greater London area.
Whereas the tabloid Independent is word-for-word identical to the broadsheet, the tabloid Times is a slightly abbreviated version of its larger self. Wednesday’s edition was 88 pages (the same size as the tabloid Independent) in comparison with a 48-page broadsheet. If both editions of the Times were identical, you would expect a 96-page tabloid. Stories have been shortened in the tabloid version. (The unsatisfactory tabloid T2 section is inserted into both broadsheet and tabloid. Incidentally, there is an awful howler in both main sections, with a photograph of Maurice Saatchi being passed off as one of his brother Charles.) My immediate impression is that the tabloid Times is slightly more successful than the tabloid Independent. Its pace is better. In the tabloid Indy there are more than 30 pages of unremitting home and foreign news before you finally reach the comment section; in the tabloid Times the comment section comes on page 15, and there is a feeling of greater variety thereafter.
That said, there is no disguising the fact that the tabloid Times is essentially a scaled-down version of the broadsheet, as is the case with the Independent. There has been no attempt to conceive a quality tabloid anew, as one would have to do were one launching a quality tabloid from scratch. These papers are seeking to remind readers that they are smaller versions of the broadsheet. This makes for a slight disappointment. European tabloids — La Repubblica in Italy, El Pais in Spain or Le Monde in France, the last somewhat larger than a tabloid — have adapted quality journalism to the smaller form. The Times and the Independent have not yet done so.
Of course, they may well do in time, if their tabloid versions are so successful that the broadsheet versions can be dropped. This is the unspoken hope of the Independent’s management, as it may be of the Times’s. It is very expensive publishing the paper in two forms, and hardly sustainable for very long, especially for the comparatively impecunious Independent. The problem is that there are some readers who clearly prefer broadsheet to tabloid. If this were not so, the Independent would be selling only tabloids where both forms are available. Were the broadsheet version to be withdrawn, would all readers who have stuck with it cheerfully switch to the tabloid? Possibly not. The danger is that some readers will drop out, or switch to other broadsheets, leaving the Independent with a net gain in sales which is rather smaller than that which it enjoys at the moment.
Nevertheless, the Independent’s decision to go tabloid was inspired, though I stick by my comment in a previous column that it is a marketing innovation rather than a journalistic one. A tabloid is more manageable, and this is of particular benefit to commuters. The paper in its smaller form seems to be reaching out to new readers. One can see why the Times has felt compelled to follow suit. It may also attract new readers; and it could put a dent in the Independent’s gains. It might also trespass into the Daily Mail’s territory. I cannot imagine they are cockahoop at these developments down at Northcliffe House.
Will the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph join the bandwagon? Both have produced tabloid dummies over the years. One might have expected the Guardian, which is the best designed and presented of the broadsheets, to be the first to adapt its talents to the tabloid form. The Daily Telegraph may judge that its older readership would be more resistant to change; in any case, while uncertainties over its future ownership persist, it is hardly in a position to make a dramatic jump. Both papers may watch the experiment for a while but, if the tabloid Times is as successful as the Independent’s has been, they can hardly risk sitting it out for long. The quality market is in a state of extraordinary flux that no one could have predicted six months ago.
In my school in the wilds of Worcestershire, where I passed my time from the age of eight to 13, there were two publications which we were allowed to read: the Times, which still carried advertisements on its front page; and the Illustrated London News. Many a wet Sunday afternoon I wiled away reading the columns of Sir Arthur Bryant, and studying the black-and-white photographs in the ILN. I had an affection for the old beast, and was sorry when it faded away.
But unbeknown to most of us it survived under the ownership of James Sherwood, and was published seasonally. I only realised that it still existed when, some months ago, its editor asked me to contribute an article. Now it has a new editor called Mark Palmer. He has revamped the magazine, and hopes it will become a monthly.
We certainly would not have been allowed to read this version at my school. There is an article on the booming sex industry in London, another which claims that kissing is more fulfilling than sex, and a third about a blonde German sex kitten decamping to London. This magazine bears little resemblance to the ILN of my youth. And yet much of it provides a surprisingly good read, and seems to succeed in its mission to be interesting to those who want to read about London. I suppose it hopes to cash in on the idea that the capital is the most exciting city in the world, as it was when the magazine was launched in 1842. It might succeed.
Viewers of BBC2’s Newsnight will be familiar with the galumphing use of props which are intended to help the dimmer members of the audience to follow the story. There was a hilarious example on Tuesday evening in an item about European Union enlargement. For some obscure reason a cake was considered the appropriate image — and there were various shots of a chef mixing a cake, putting it into the oven and of it being cut. You get the drift. The most ludicrous shot was of a piece of the said cake being broken into three or four pieces to illustrate some point. I can’t imagine anyone, with the possible exception of three-year-old children, who do not generally watch Newsnight, finding this Janet-and-John approach very useful. To me it is positively distracting, so that on Tuesday I began to think about cakes rather than the European Union. This is dumbing down gone barmy.