It needs to. It wants to. Can 'The Guardian' go Berliner by polling day?

The big-name signing of Simon Jenkins may be the start of the ailing broadsheet's fightback. But there's still the small matter of the format change. Will it be too little, too late? Vincent Graff reports

It is unlikely to have the same resonance as when JFK announced it at the height of the Cold War, but Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, is growing increasingly impatient to tell the newspaper-reading public: "Ich bin ein Berliner."

It is unlikely to have the same resonance as when JFK announced it at the height of the Cold War, but Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, is growing increasingly impatient to tell the newspaper-reading public: "Ich bin ein Berliner."

In case you did not know, the Berliner is the none-too-snappy name for the proposed new format of The Guardian. Midway between a broadsheet and a tabloid, it has not been seen before in Britain.

But when will the new-sized paper be on the doorsteps? Sooner rather than later, Rusbridger is praying. He needs to do something. Since October 2003, when The Independent repackaged itself as a compact and saw its circulation rise by 10 per cent as a result, the sales gap between The Guardian and The Independent has narrowed from 177,000 to 116,000. Sales of The Guardian, at 333,000, have dropped 12 per cent in two years.

Nothing is simple when it comes to newspaper sales but the quality papers that have changed shape (The Independent, The Times) have gained readers, while those that have not have lost them. The Daily Telegraph's daily sale is 35,000 down since October 2003.

But Rusbridger will not be pressured into instant action. There were voices on the Scott Trust, the board that owns and governs the newspaper, to make the rush to tabloid. But Rusbridger, backed by a majority of his staff, stood firm.

"We considered going tabloid and we dummied some up and showed them to the Scott Trust," says Rusbridger. "But I explained the nature of the debate within the paper and said that I did not think tabloid was right for us."

The paper, it was agreed, would find a third way. Neither tabloid nor broadsheet, the new Guardian will measure 47cm x 31.5cm (or, 6cm narrower than a broadsheet and 10cm longer than a tabloid). Journalists there will have to sit and wait - and watch sales slide further? - while new presses are built. There is not a single Berliner printing press in Britain.

For a paper that has prided itself on being first, sitting and waiting comes hard - Rusbridger was the launch editor of the tabloid G2 section, when the concept of a small-format stand-alone features section was unique. No one likes being bounced into change by rivals.

Rusbridger puts his circulation drop down to two factors. First, The Guardian website, the most extensive and expensive of any British newspaper, "is now cannibalising the paper", and second, The Independent - with its convenient format, and punchy, single-issue campaigning front pages - has been stealing readers.

So where are we now? Last week, The Guardian revealed to the printing industry that it is to spend £62m - £12m more than previously thought - on three giant new presses and other printing equipment. It also has to construct a new building in Stratford, east London, to house two of those presses. (The other one will be installed at an existing plant in Trafford Park, Manchester.)

Senior staff at The Guardian, and its Sunday stablemate The Observer, have been frantically producing pages for the redesign - despite the fact that officially The Guardian will not adopt the new format until "some time in 2006". Few in the media industry accept that the relaunch is as far away as The Guardian wants its competitors to believe. So when will the changeover happen?

Rusbridger has many things going for him, but a willingness to disclose his most sensitive commercial secret to his biggest newspaper rival is not one of them. (Historians may recall a similar secrecy here at Independent House. The Independent's rivals only learnt of the paper's new size a few days before it happened.)

Rumours were making their way around Fleet Street last week that the new Guardian will be here in time for a May general election. One version of the tale suggested that the paper will fly Berliner editions of the paper into London from printing presses in Europe. The idea is that new readers will get to sample the product at a time when it can show off its best political analysis and reporting. Meanwhile, the rest of the country would have to make do with the old-fashioned broadsheet.

Two (insurmountable) problems: the cost would be enormous; and, the fact that the papers would be travelling hundreds of miles would mean that only the very earliest edition of the paper - that is, the one that is least up-to-the-minute - would be in Berliner format. In other words, the Berliner would be the least impressive edition of the paper. Hardly a great start. So it will not happen. Meanwhile, work has not yet begun on the new building in Stratford, I'm told.

The best information is that there will be a launch in the late summer for a Berliner-sized Guardian, with The Observer following shortly afterwards. There is a very good reason for believing this: last week, Rusbridger made the (startling) announcement that the columnist Simon Jenkins will be joining The Guardian after 15 years at The Times, where he was editor in the early 1990s. He will arrive, the paper said, "in the summer". My sources tell me his arrival will coincide with the unveiling of the new format.

In truth, nobody (not even Rusbridger) knows for sure when the papers will convert. Like any homeowner, he knows that builders do not always keep their promises. One big problem needs to be sorted out long before the new presses roll. Guardian Newspapers currently print many of their copies at the Westferry print works, on the Isle of Dogs, a production outlet jointly owned by the Barclay brothers' Telegraph group and Richard Desmond's Express. The Guardian and The Observer are locked into a long-term deal to print their papers there until 2009. Desmond and the Telegraph are in a position of strength. The Guardian needs an opt-out, almost at any price. Extricating itself from the Barclays and Desmond could cost the papers many millions.

Insiders at The Guardian admit that they have some tough negotiations ahead but claim that their position is strengthened by the fact that the presses they are using at Westferry are the best on the site. The hope is that another newspaper will want to step in, mitigating Westferry's loss.

It is being suggested that another hidden cost may have taken Guardian bosses by surprise. The Manchester Evening News - and other local newspapers in the North owned by the Guardian - do not want to go Berliner. But they currently use the Guardian's own presses, which will of course be unavailable after the switch. So there, potentially, is another big expense.

For all these financial headaches, Rusbridger claims that the purchase of the new presses makes financial sense. The new papers will have colour on every page, three years before any other quality title will be able to offer such a promise to advertisers. This will boost revenues as well as bring in new readers, he hopes.

Last year, The Guardian made a profit. "Clearly the cost of the marketing and re-equipping of our presses will put us into loss," says Rusbridger. But not for long, he hopes.

Meanwhile, how many extra readers will be needed to justify the expense and the risk? Will The Guardian be satisfied if all this effort merely puts Rusbridger's paper back to where it was before his rivals shrank?

Like The Independent's editor Simon Kelner before him, Rusbridger will not be drawn on any sales targets. It is never a good idea to make such predictions. A Berliner Rusbridger may very well be. But a doughnut he is not.

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