Peter Cole On The Press: Downsized, upmarket and making the red-tops blush

The soaring sales figures of the new compact papers suggest a brighter future for upmarket journalism
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The Independent Online

The evidence continues to mount. If this were a scientific experiment, where we were gathering more and more evidence to establish beyond doubt the link between a set of circumstances and a disease, or a drug and a cure, we would have reached the stage by now of being able to say, if not QED, then certainly that all the evidence points in the same direction. In our case, reducing size increases sales.

And what about a further and even cheerier hypothesis? That serious newspapers are the future, while the tabloid end of the market is shrinking.

The first of these is less contentious. During the past two months, we have had two more relaunches of quality broadsheet newspapers in a smaller size. The Guardian has taken the unique (in Britain) route of the Berliner format (bigger than tabloid, smaller than broadsheet). And The Independent on Sunday (IoS) has finally followed its daily stablemate, which started the whole revolution, by also adopting the compact, or tabloid, dimensions.

Result? On the basis of the audited circulation figures for October, The Guardian is selling 6.6 per cent more copies than in October last year, The Independent on Sunday 7.3 per cent more. These are good figures. The Guardian, in the daily quality market, had been losing circulation badly since The Independent and Times compact launches two years ago. In its last month as a broadsheet, it sold around 340,000 copies a day. To put on 60,000 and more through a relaunch is impressive. The Independent on Sunday had been hanging around the 200,000 mark for some time, but downsizing immediately added 30,000, proportionately much the same as The Guardian.

For the first two weeks of October, the IoS was still a broadsheet, which would have had the effect of depressing the figure for the whole month. Balance against that the sampling effect: the relaunch is talked about and accompanied by marketing and promotion, causing new readers to try the paper. Not all of them stick. However, the new Guardian was in the same situation the previous month, with two weeks a broadsheet, but lots of publicity. Its big circulation gain held for the second monthly figures.

On the evidence of the (daily) Independent and Times, these circulation gains are no flash in the pan. While the rate of increase of sale will not, of course, be maintained (the compact Independent in the early days was selling at least 20 per cent more than the previous year's broadsheet version), the higher level of sale seems to hold. The Independent is today selling 13 per cent more than its broadsheet version did two years ago. And The Times continues to be the fastest growing as well as the highest selling quality compact, up 7.2 per cent year on year and now over 700,000.

Returning to the two new compacts on the block, both, it seems to me, have had assured launches. The Guardian's relaunch has clearly been more radical - new shape, new typefaces, new sections, in many ways a new concept. The IoS reorganised its main section and, in my personal view, produced a paper that feels as though it always should have been compact. It always helps to accompany a relaunch with a big exclusive, and David Blunkett himself said it was the IoS lead that did for him.

In both cases then, the worry in some quarters that downsizing means downmarketing has not, I think, been realised. Perhaps oddly, the one quality daily still broadsheet is the one against which that allegation might stick. The Daily Telegraph, too, has had a recent facelift (relaunch would be too strong a term), but, unlike its former broadsheet rivals, has had no circulation lift. The Telegraph remains the biggest seller in this sector of the market, but its circulation direction has been down for some years.

In its new guise, it has a tabloid sports section and a broadsheet business section. It has brought in star writers such as Jeff Randall from the BBC, and rewarded them with the largest photographs (or photo bylines, as journalists call them) ever seen in newspapers. It gives the impression that no subject is bigger than the writer, and suggests that the Telegraph version of celebrity journalism is the journalist as celebrity.

Anybody who senses that it is the Daily Mail, rather than its former broadsheet rivals, that the Telegraph has in its sights will call in evidence the transfer deal involving one John Bryant.

Bryant came to prominence years ago when he imported a South African teenage athlete called Zola Budd and tried to turn her into a British Olympian. He has been around ever since, working variously for The Times, the Mail, The European and the Sunday Correspondent. It was there I encountered him, or rather we passed in the doorway. A condition of the final, and abortive, refinancing of that paper was that the editor was changed. That was me. And while my demise was being plotted, Bryant was being lined up to succeed me.

The paper did not last much longer - we cannot blame Bryant for this; he was brought in to throw the last dice. Then he set off on his travels around the British press before returning to where Zola's story was located, the Daily Mail, four years ago as consultant editor. Now he has been appointed editor-in-chief at the Telegraph, which cannot be the best news that Martin Newland, editor of the daily, and Sarah Sands, editor of the Sunday, have had this year.

Since the Barclay brothers bought the Telegraph they have looked to the Mail for their influential appointments. Murdoch MacLennan was hired as chief executive, and has since wielded the power at Canary Wharf. He brought in an assistant to the then editorial director, Kim Fletcher. Fletcher has gone; the assistant remains. And with all the unsettling (for Newland) talk about the editorship of the daily, now the need for an editor-in-chief has been identified. I doubt whether Newland or Sands spotted this gaping hole.

Bryant, who at 61 is much older than the two editors he will supervise, is not the kind of man not to engage. And given where he comes from, it seems likely he is intended to influence the Telegraph in a Mail-ish way. We shall see. It is worth noting that the serene upward path of the Mail itself has been disturbed of late. Its circulation has fallen by 2.7 per cent year on year, the Mail on Sunday by 6.0 per cent. There may be a message in that.

What he will make of the fluffy, "spa-like" relaunched Sunday Telegraph also remains to be seen. It has not had a friendly reception. Media Guardian sniffily described it as "having a long way to go".

The Telegraph has also raised its price to 65p, the same as The Independent but 5p more than The Times and Guardian. This will not help, although the Telegraph sells a high proportion of copies at a reduced rate.

Then there was that other hypothesis, that quality sells while tabloids are less popular than they were. The evidence is this: the four general quality daily titles last month sold 70,000 more copies than they did a year ago, 2.28m. The four general quality Sunday titles last month sold 31,000 more copies than a year ago, 2.75m.

This is the only sector of the market where sales are rising. The red-top tabloids are selling 220,000 fewer copies than a year ago. The mid-market titles, Mail and Express, are selling 169,000 fewer.

Have we entered the age of the intelligent newspaper, as long as it's the right size?

Peter Cole is Professor of Journalism at the University of Sheffield