'Quality isn't confined to the broadsheet shape'

Bravery is the key to a successful reinvention, says ex-Times editor Charles Wilson
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the early Wapping days Rupert Murdoch's favourite response when the editor of The Times asked for more resources to compete with the then mighty Daily Telegraph was: "You don't need money Charlie... you need to go to tabloid. That's how you beat 'em."

You might think it was a brave editor who ignored the advice of Rupert Murdoch, even when he was only a medium-sized media tycoon. It would have taken an even braver man to face The Times's editorial staff - let alone the readers - in 1986 and tell them that size doesn't matter.

Now, several editors on, Rupert's tease has come to pass but only after The Independent has shown that change involves timing as well as bravery. The truth is that for two or three years all the national broadsheets had been quietly flirting with the tabloid option, designing dummies, testing reader reaction, and measuring advertising outcomes. Many considered that the market was crying out for an upmarket tabloid - or compact in marketing-speak. But no one wanted to be first to tell their quality readers they were changing size and risk the inevitable catcalling, the allegations of dumbing down or getting bracketed with the red-top 'populars'. (That was another of Rupert's favourite teases: he called the red-tops 'popular' and the broadsheets 'unpopular'.)

The Independent broke the logjam with the brilliant if ultra-simple ploy of offering a choice - a reader-friendly size or the traditional broadsheet.

At first the tabloid was available only in selected areas but wherever it appeared the impact was impressive and the sale soared. What The Independent was proving to its readers - and to the newspaper industry - was that tabloid is size, not character, not content. Quality is not confined to the broadsheet shape.

Within days The Times had taken its own tabloid plans and dummies from the shelf, dusted them down, and within weeks were emulating the ploy and offering their readers a choice.

But whereas The Independent tabloid landed running, looked from day one like it had been a tabloid all its life, The Times looked something of a fashion victim. It lacked conviction, hoist by its own heritage.

No newspaper in the world is more steeped in history, tradition, and perception of quality or more conscious of its readers' opinions.

Presenting a tabloid form was a traumatic experience for many of the staff and not a few readers. Anyone who has ever worked at The Times will empathise with the urge not to frighten the horses, not to go too fast too quickly. In nearly a year since its launch The Times tabloid has improved, evolved from a self-conscious mini mirror image of the broadsheet to a more confident paper in its own right.

Now that the umbilical cord is cut I believe that confidence will be even stronger. Gone will be the designer's nightmare of having to pour the quart content of the broadsheet into the pint-pot tabloid page.

Within six months the broadsheet will have joined other bygones like front page small ads in the newspaper museum. And Rupert Murdoch will be saying to the editor: "I don't know what took you so long."