Editors agree: size does matter

Last week the editors of The Independent, The Times, and The Guardian met to debate the success and future direction of the compact newsaper format
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The Independent Online

Simon Kelner, The Independent: 'We have not compromised our journalism'

Does size matter? I think the question has already been answered. The Independent's circulation is up 13 per cent year-on-year, with remarkable increases in readership; The Times has turned its back on 216 years of broadsheet publishing and is having similar, albeit less spectacular, sales gains; The Scotsman is already a compact; The Guardian is spending untold millions on refitting presses to print a mid-size version. If size really doesn't matter, then the evidence is rather contradictory.

Of course size matters. It matters to consumers, who have been bombarded for many years with the message that smaller means more convenient and modern in everything from mobile phones to soap powders. So we listened to our readers and potential readers, and they told us that they liked the values and texture of a broadsheet, but commuters found the size and shape inconvenient and young readers and women in particular thought it old-fashioned. It was clear that we were producing a newspaper dictated by convention, rather than by the demands of the consumer.

We tend to think of quality newspaper readers as conservative. But this is an outdated concept. Readers quickly get the idea that quality journalism can be delivered in a tabloid format. They're nowhere near as conservative as we are as an industry.

So size matters, yes, but content matters more. Size is not the panacea: the example of the Sunday Correspondent is a valuable one here. It would be no good Nokia producing the world's smallest phone if you couldn't hear the calls.

Equally, if our compact edition was not faithful to the values of The Independent, the idea would have been stillborn.

So the big question is not whether size matters, but whether downsizing means going downmarket.

And here I would say that the evidence is resoundingly that it doesn't. We have had to adapt to the tabloid format in terms of design; the paper may be graphically bolder and punchier than it was previously, particularly in terms of our front pages, but as far as our journalism and values are concerned, there has been no compromise. It is simply that, through the change of size, we've found a way of connecting quality journalism to more people, and particularly to a younger audience.

This starts with the front page, which is the most powerful marketing tool we as journalists have. It says more about our newspaper than a free DVD or a holiday offer.

I am tremendously proud of our front pages - which vary from an important piece of comment to a graphical presentation of a big, serious story to something with a campaigning edge. The Independent has always been a newspaper with strong opinions, and the views behind the news are what gives newspapers an advantage these days.

We can't compete with the electronic media for breaking news. But no other medium has the range, quality, depth and trustworthiness of the interpretation, comment and analysis provided by each and every one of our newspapers at such low prices.

The American election was a case in point. Our 5am editions were out of date before they reached the news-stand. People turned to radio and TV for the news. The next day, when the papers concentrated on comment and analysis, sales rose by between six and 10 per cent. This may be an extreme example, but the day of the viewspaper may not be long in coming.

That may be the next revolution. For the time being, we don't know where this one will end.

Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian: 'Tabloids have directness and impact rather than subtlety'

I completely applaud Simon and Robert's bravery in moving to this tabloid form. To their credit, neither has suggested that one size should fit all. It's worked spectacularly for The Independent, it's done pretty well for The Times and it's done more or less nothing for The Scotsman. So I don't think it's a panacea. Without completely raining on the parade, the bigger picture is not very encouraging.

The combined circulation of The Times and The Independent is down nine per cent from 1999, even having done the switch. I estimate that between us, Simon, Robert and I will lose between £40m and £50m this year.

The one thing we all agree on is that content is going to matter more than style or size. Having said that, I do acknowledge that narrower papers, if not smaller papers, are easier to read on the tube. Anyone who's ever tried to read a broadsheet newspaper on the tube knows that it's a pretty hellish experience.

To explain why we didn't decide to follow the crowd: it was not a fear of tabloids. I was the founding editor of G2 [The Guardian's tabloid second section], so it's not that I'm intrinsically uncomfortable with the idea of a tabloid. But I just couldn't get it to work for The Guardian. There were three things that trussed us. One was whether it was possible to produce a Guardian in which we truly believed in this new shape. The second was whether it was possible to produce one that could thrive in competition with several other tabloids. Third was a question of bulk - that what you were gaining in convenience in shrinking one way was presenting a real problem in going out another way. That was particularly a problem for us with our third sections. The tabloids are really a different market. They have directness and impact rather than subtlety. So it's not true to say that what you're getting now with The Times and The Independent is what you were getting before. The Guardian is going to produce what is known as a Berliner. It is about the same width as a tabloid, but it's going to be a different style of journalism and it's going to look absolutely beautiful.

I don't think size is a cure-all, and I think the novelty will wear off. I profoundly disagree with Simon Kelner about views over news. I think news is where it all has to start and what counts is that the news is reliable and trustworthy. The evidence is that people don't trust newspapers and they especially don't trust tabloids. That's the problem with the word "tabloid".

Clearly, I think the Berliner will enable us to do something cooler, calmer and more authoritative, but the shape of the pages won't help us if we get the journalism wrong.

Robert Thomson, The Times: 'A newspaper depends on how people live their lives'

Obviously I owe the people at The Independent for having changed the perception of quality newspapers. But the first Times editor to think very seriously about a compact was William Rees-Mogg in the 1970s, so we're not the first generation of journalists to recognise that the environment around us has changed.

There is a tendency to underestimate the impact of the internet. It has snuck up on newspapers and changed their role in society.

So we're competing with the internet, but we are also attempting to fashion newspapers to complement it. We have to recognise that the very nature of a newspaper has now changed, despite the newspaper itself.

It's a reality for a newspaper that it has to be dependent on the way people live their lives. Readers are cultivated in a way that was thought to be beyond the means of the middle classes in the past. The lesson of our experience is that size is not particularly significant, but a sense of place is.

The defining moment for us was when the compact edition was disliked by a number of our readers, but it wasn't viscerally hated. Our readers wanted to know why we hadn't told them at the time that The Times was going to bring out a compact edition; they felt a little lost because we had moved virtually every piece of furniture on the paper. It's one thing to move the crossword, another to move the weather, the obituaries, the crossword and everything.

There has been an exponential evolution in the British newspaper over the past year. In the end it's about audience; the demographic who read a newspaper. If it's younger and you're genuinely picking up people who are new to newspapers, then you have an attractive audience. There's something about the image of a broadsheet that is traditional but intimidating for younger readers, and particularly younger readers used to internet skills. The compact is in some ways like a computer screen. You have to be aware of the visual prompts that are guiding people around a screen.

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