Has the Berliner come too late to save 'The Guardian'?

They're counting the days at Farringdon Road. And after the latest ABCs, so they should
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The Independent Online

We're talking about newspapers here, of course. The latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show that last month, when terrorism in London understandably saw a concerned population scurrying more regularly to the news-stands, the daily paper that most glaringly failed to benefit from major stories of the eye-catching and stomach-turning kind was one yet to adopt a smaller format.

In July the broadsheet Guardian's full-price sale dropped to 294,803 and its total figure to 358,345, the lowest since July 1978. Overall circulation is down 3.4 per cent year-on-year and the paper has suffered 28 consecutive months of decline in its UK newstrade sales. Size may not be everything where The Guardian is concerned, and other factors have obviously influenced its slide, but the message from consumers seems loud and clear: big is bad.

Despite a bonus of a size normally warranting the popping of champagne corks - he received £150,000 for the year ended in April for his part in the paper's efforts to sort out the mess it's in - editor Alan Rusbridger must anxiously be counting the days untilThe Guardian can escape what must be seen as a straightjacket of a format. There aren't many days to count. Having last year decided to join the exodus from the broadsheet market - led by The Independent, with The Times in hot pursuit - but plumping for the hybrid Berliner size rather than a tabloid shape, The Guardian's stately progress became a gallop when it brought forward the date of its conversion. Much to the relief of many members of staff, the new Guardian will now emerge next month.

One can almost hear the sighs of relief from Farringdon Road - a Guardian staffer tells me that he and his colleagues are both excited and optimistic because they believe the paper has learnt from mistakes made by The Independent and The Times in producing "a coherent visually arresting paper that will make an impact with readers".

The nature of the mistakes being rectified I do not know, but I note from the latest ABC report that the six-month average sales of The Independent is up by 0.3 per cent and that the Independent and Times were the only daily newspapers to record six-month gains. What's more, Times editor Robert Thomson is understandably boasting that for the ninth month in a row The Times sold more copies at full rate than The Daily Telegraph, a broadsheet without a downsizing blueprint even on the drawing board.

So will the Berliner Guardian work similar magic in a market where only the fittest - and, it seems, the slimmest - survive? Those who have seen one, or more, of the many dummies produced by Rusbridger and his team of designers are not so sure, although to a man and woman they agree that adopting a smaller format was absolutely essential for a paper that's been wasting away.

"Format alone doesn't solve all the problems," says a senior editorial executive at The Times, "although recent history shows that, generally speaking, smaller is better. But papers have to respond to a rapidly changing environment in all sorts of ways. To begin with, they have to deal with the oppressive time pressure most people are under, or think they're under.

If they devote 30 minutes a day to reading a newspaper, that's a huge commitment, so every minute of the experience must be satisfying. And the readers want facts - the time they are prepared to spend being entertained by their newspaper has decreased. The Times has changed enormously and, despite what some critics say, not by dumbing down - four years ago it was on a non-stop celebrity binge.

"We've seen a version of a Berliner-format Guardian" - The Times cheekily produced a recent diary column that copied as exactly as makes no difference a page from a Guardian dummy - "and their problem is clearly going to be making an impact in a market where impulse buying is so prevalent.

"I thought it was design conceit rather than an exercise in reality - it had a very subtle splash headline and a clever photograph of the kind that comes along only about once a month. Well, readers don't want subtle. They want a headline that sells the story and they want immediacy. There's a problem, too, in that Berliner folded to fit into a supermarket or petrol station sales box will still show only half of the front page, which means it can't have the impact of the Indy or The Times. And I'm not sure they have yet realised that changing the format means more than simply moving a lot of furniture around the house."

So the jury, while not yet out, awaits what one hopes won't be a criminal folly. The rough old game being benevolent when it comes to life and death, there are few who don't wish The Guardian well - within reason - in following the footsteps of Le Monde, Spain's La Vanguardia and, in Italy, La Repubblica. That £50m spent on new presses, sited at Stratford in east London and in Manchester, plus the £12m necessary additional start-up money, is the biggest stake gambled by the paper since it moved to London from Manchester more than 40 years ago.

Meanwhile, the incredible shrinking newspaper revolution continues. The Observer will don its relatively diminutive Berliner overcoat shortly after The Guardian gets its new clothes. And in Lafayette, Indiana, the local Journal and Courier will next year become the first newspaper in North America to downsize to the Berliner.

While websites pump and bloggers blog and traffic on the cyberspace information highway threatens to reach gridlock, print continues to pick itself up, brush itself down and start all over again.

Bill Hagerty is the editor of the 'British Journalism Review'

Peter Cole returns next week


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