How many tears will Rupert shed for the broadsheet 'Times' (RIP)?

The once 'top people's paper' is going fully compact. Where does that leave the market?
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The Independent Online

Let us, at least for a moment, put to one side all the knee-jerk sniping at Rupert Murdoch which flows so easily from the mouths of the liberal establishment. It will have come as a surprise to them to realise that the man is capable of emotion - if not exactly tears, the facial contortions that often precede them. They do not yet have to believe that he bleeds.

Let us, at least for a moment, put to one side all the knee-jerk sniping at Rupert Murdoch which flows so easily from the mouths of the liberal establishment. It will have come as a surprise to them to realise that the man is capable of emotion - if not exactly tears, the facial contortions that often precede them. They do not yet have to believe that he bleeds.

It happened last Tuesday in Adelaide, Australia, when the decision to make Murdoch's News Corp an American company - just as the media mogul himself once turned from an Australian into an American - was formally ratified at the last AGM to be held in Adelaide. From now on, it's Delaware. And, it was reported, Rupert was not unmoved.

At least we thought that was why he was not unmoved, but it now seems that he was probably not unmoved by the ending of 219 years of publication of The Times in broadsheet form. That is a long time, and while The Times is not exactly dominated these days by its sense of history, it is appropriate to have the printed equivalent of a minute's silence for the passing of the broadsheet "Thunderer". For so long the most famous British newspaper on earth, the newspaper of record, the establishment's house journal and sounding board, the self-styled "top people's paper", the home of the famous letters' page ... how long ago it all seems. But from one broadsheet to the departed one - Rest In Peace.

Much faster than many of us predicted, The Times is making the final and decisive commitment to the tabloid version, the compact, less than a year after its launch, following the pattern of The Independent - the first quality paper into the compact market 13 months ago. Both titles produced broadsheet and compact versions for a period, pushing the compact harder in terms of availability and marketing. Both then decided to go compact only. There the similarities end.

The Times's history is so much longer than The Independent's 18 years. Its audience is so different, and likely to be more resistant to change. Somehow the idea of judges in their chambers and gentlemen in their clubs sitting in their high-backed leather chairs reading a compact Times does not seem altogether convincing. But Murdoch and The Times are thinking of other readers.

The Times, despite assurances from its editor Robert Thomson in May that the paper could publish in two formats indefinitely, appears to have been much encouraged by dropping the broadsheet in Ireland, Scotland and the West Country. The cost savings in abandoning dual format will be significant, and would offset any short-term circulation hiccup brought about by the diehard, broadsheet-or-nothing brigade.

We enter a new and interesting phase of compact wars. In a few weeks we shall be a year into compact versions of the two papers, with both broadsheet versions gone and compact-led circulation gains of 21 per cent (46,000 copies) for The Independent and 4.5 per cent (28,000 copies) for The Times. In September these were the only two dailies (leaving out the specialist Financial Times) to gain sale year on year. Will the trend continue?

The next phase will measure performance against the obvious rival. For The Times that means targeting The Daily Telegraph, with its slipping sale but its new owners, the Barclay brothers, now on board. Don't expect a passive response; but don't assume a compact one. If the Telegraph is going to make a virtue of its traditional size alongside its traditional values, it must do so with traditional quality while pointing to strong signs of down-marketing in the compact Times. Why, for example, with only half the space for front-page news, is it using massive pictures of Dior models and Kelly Holmes?

For The Independent it means targeting The Guardian as it waits 18 months for new presses and the launch of its less compact but down-sized version. The Guardian has lost sale recently, The Independent closing the gap to around 100,000. Will the erosion of the gap continue? Will The Independent continue to look and feel innovative when the compact is two years old?

As The Times ends an era two centuries long, these questions fascinate, because the big question - "Is the format revolution here to stay?" - becomes rhetorical when there is no turning back.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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