Dateline Berliner: 'The Guardian' gets ready to be born again

A big event is due in Farringdon Road next week. But will the historic relaunch in a radical new format deliver the goods? Tim Luckhurst canvasses opinion
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The Independent Online

The presses are primed and the dummies have been signed off. In its most dramatic change since it moved from Manchester to London in 1964, The Guardian will, a week tomorrow, on 12 September, abandon its broadsheet shape to re-emerge as the first national British daily to publish in the mid-sized format known as Berliner. Even optimists admit the move marks the 184-year-old title's biggest gamble.

Some sceptics see the innovation, bought at a cost of £80m, as evidence of desperation. The Guardian's July sale of 358,345 was its lowest since 1978. But Paul Thomas, managing partner of the media agency Mindshare, is optimistic. "I have seen it and I think the prospects are good. It has full colour throughout and the layout is refreshing. It is a brave decision to do something different, but the newspaper market in general is not at its most healthy and this will give them stand-out appeal."

Terry Watson of the international newspaper design consultants Palmer Watson agreed. "Berliner is a great format. It is definitely the right move for The Guardian. Because of the associations the tabloid shape has in British minds I am sure that if The Times had been able to move directly from broadsheet to Berliner it would have done it."

Watson, who advises the Berliner- formatted French title Le Monde, says several British titles contemplated adopting it. They were deterred by the cost, not aesthetic objections. A former broadsheet editor said: "There will be several chief executives at other titles desperately hoping the Berliner Guardian is a flop. They know their editors wanted to try this years ago. Conservatism about formats was universal on the commercial side of the newspaper business until The Independent proved how attractive change can be."

Leading media agencies reveal that there have been tough negotiations with Guardian Newspapers about the value of advertising space on the new pages. One said: "That is an issue and it is still going on. I doubt it will be resolved before 12 September." But Adam Kean, creative director of the advertising agency Publicis, is intrigued. "Images that work in weekend supplements might work in this shape, might attract some of that style of advertising. I will certainly take a look. They needed to do something different. It is a good thing in terms of their brand."

Lynne Anderson, communications director of the Newspaper Society, said format changes do work. "The trend towards format change is new to the nationals and has been seen as very innovative, but many regional newspapers changed format years ago. Regional newspapers regularly canvass their readers and respond accordingly - to great effect in newspapers like the Western Mail, the Liverpool Daily Post and The Belfast Telegraph, all of which relaunched and achieved considerable circulation increases. Readers seem to prefer new-look papers."

The big caveat, identified by advertisers, editors and designers alike, is that changing format does not necessarily deliver a better newspaper; it is not a miracle cure. As The Independent proved, it is not possible simply to pour the content of an existing broadsheet into a new format. New editorial ideas are needed as well.

Observers say these cannot come too soon at The Guardian. It has been heavily criticised recently for a sour political stance, for the decline of G2, its once agenda-setting features section, and for the relentless eccentricity of its comment pages. Media buyers warn that a format change may encourage sampling without doing anything to stem the loss of once-loyal readers.

Head of BBC Sport, Roger Mosey, who was, until last month, head of BBC Television News, said: "The Guardian has been talking about being more a journal of record and looking at something like the BBC model where we try to get the maximum objectivity into our news coverage. As a consumer, I do sometimes worry that significant areas of the modern media have lost the art of reporting. If The Guardian achieves that and it filters into the wider market it would be a good thing."

The paper's editor, Alan Rusbridger, has acknowledged the importance of this. Last year, when he rejected the opportunity to follow The Independent's lead by adopting a compact design, he told Guardian journalists, "The Independent is a better tabloid than it was a broadsheet. I don't think the same would be true of The Guardian." Announcing the relaunch last week, Rusbridger added: "The challenge is to remain true to our journalism ... while finding a modern print format for a new generation of readers. We believe we have found it with the Berliner, which combines the portability of a tabloid with the sensibility of a broadsheet."

But commercial analysts doubt that The Guardian plans substantial editorial changes to coincide with its new look. Kelly Harrold, head of press at media agency Zenith Optimedia, said: "A new reader might pick up a Guardian now because it is more portable. If the intention is to appeal to new readers then no editorial change is needed, and as for advertisers, they like change. The general view is that all innovation is positive."

Nick Theakstone of Mindshare said: "It could be successful." His colleague, Paul Thomas, added: "Because it still has a fold it makes it easier to retain status as a quality newspaper. It will reinvigorate the market. It is something different and that suits The Guardian."

Professor Philip Schlesinger of the media research unit at Stirling University agreed. "The Guardian seems to have taken stock of tabloidisation and chosen a very attractive position. It is a risk, but the core readership is relatively loyal and I think it will work."

Others who have seen dummy copies reserve judgement. A leading columnist explained: "The big difficulty is going to be preventing it looking too much like a magazine. It can easily fall into resembling something British readers do not associate with news."

But most analysts consider that The Guardian has little to lose by attempting a radical response to decline and its Berliner format is one that many broadsheet journalists have contemplated with envy on visits to mainland Europe. The last word should go to a Guardian insider: "A few old-timers think it is a total betrayal, but mostly people think it's great. If it doesn't work, there is always the traditional option - changing the editor."


Blair was not there: official

Former No 10 aides may have criticised Tony Blair for pandering to the media, but the Prime Minister's attention to the Fourth Estate cuts both ways. Downing Street demanded a correction from Prospect magazine after its last issue repeated the line that Blair had falsely claimed that as a lad he had watched Jackie Milburn play for Newcastle United. Not so, said No 10, furnishing Prospect with cuttings demonstrating how they had made other publications kiss the rod of correction.

Curiously, though, No 10 had no problem with the main point in the Prospect piece, which cast doubt on another Blair claim - that he had listened to the speeches of Daniel Cohn-Bendit in his youth. "We took that as confirmation by omission," said a source at the magazine, where staff are somewhat bewildered at how seriously Blair's minions took this matter.

Beware, sons bearing jobs

An update on The Daily Telegraph's wooing of Jon Steafel, the well-regarded executive editor of the Daily Mail. At an initial meeting, Murdoch MacLennan, the Telegraph Group chief executive, wafted the position of deputy editor in front of Steafel's nose. Whether or not Steafel felt that yet further advancement might follow soon after, he was sufficiently interested to agree to be flown to Athens to meet Sir David Barclay's son Aidan for further discussions. As the bouzoukis played, Steafel expressed some surprise that the meeting was not attended by Martin Newland, who as editor might be expected to be party to the hiring of his deputy. It was explained that, doh!, should the deal go ahead, Newland would be informed in good time. In the event, Steafel turned the offer down. If we hear any more, we'll keep you posted, Martin.

Standard drift

News International's poaching of Mike Anderson, the managing director of the Evening Standard, is thought to have put back a proposed mini-redesign of the capital's newspaper. One idea is that the Standard should expand its comment section from one to two pages, suggesting an upmarket drift for the main paper while its populist (and free) younger sibling, Standard Lite, floats happily down river on a tide of celebrity froth.

Nudge, nudge, shrink, shrink

Staff at The Times are bemused by the choice of language used by editor Robert Thomson in his missives to the troops. First there was a reference to "Renaissance readers".

Now comes Thomson's hope that The Thunderer will provide "knowledge to the knowing". Grumbles one senior writer: "As far as I can see, this translates as me losing 500 words from my column."

The topless Tel

There used to be a rule at The Daily Telegraph that all glamour shots had to be "cropped above the nipples". No more. Last month the paper not only carried a topless "art" shot from a film at the Edinburgh festival, but also a news picture from Swaziland featuring no fewer than five bare-breasted lovelies. As Bill Deedes might have said: "This is a bit of a marmalade dropper."