The so-called quality newspaper market has not been dull of late. Over the past six months or so we have seen The Independent launch its compact edition, The Times follow suit and the Telegraph titles sold to the Barclay brothers. Of the four general audience titles in this sector of the market, only The Guardian has not been making waves. That may, in part, account for why it has been losing sales.
But now the left-of-centre broadsheet has stopped hiding its light and details are emerging of plans to reduce its size. Years ago, at the height of the Cold War, President John F Kennedy famously made a speech in Germany in which he declared: "Ich bin ein Berliner." Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, is now doing the same.
After the broadsheet and the tabloid (or compact, if it is in the quality sector of the market) comes the Berliner. This is another variation on the downsizing theme, a version lying between the tabloid and the broadsheet. It is the format used by Le Monde and a few other titles in mainland Europe, a little wider and much deeper than the tabloid. The Guardian is very enthusiastic about this size, believing it to be less constricting than the pure tabloid, where there is always the temptation to go for a single picture and dominant story on each page. The Guardian's designers believe the Berliner format will give them a distinctive product, with cooler typography than a tabloid and a serious feel. It will also get round the dominance of the conventional advertisement sizes in the tabloid format.
New or reconfigured presses will be required, to serve both the north and south of the country. The Observer, owned by The Guardian, would change format at the same time. There would be no going back for either paper, no interim period of producing the old broadsheet alongside the new Berliner. It will be the first use in Britain of this size of paper, and The Observer could be the first quality Sunday paper to downsize. High risks. High stakes. But there is no doubt at The Guardian that this is what it must do. All the research says its readers find a smaller format more convenient.
It is aware of being caught out by the success of The Independent's launch last autumn. Having missed being the first to downsize, it watched the pioneers, and probably learned more from the less than dramatic success of The Times's tabloid venture and the reluctance of a significant proportion of that paper's readers to abandon the broadsheet, which they are still offered.
The difficulty for The Guardian is that the launch of the Berliner model is two years away. We are now in the phase where the market is settling down a bit after the impact of The Independent's compact launch. The scale of its success, a 17 per cent year-on-year increase in sales, albeit from a low base, took most people by surprise. The market, or one section of it, was ready for a smaller format, and The Independent executed its changes well.
But as the months pass, these year-on-year figures will fall and The Independent will be quite happy if the circulation keeps edging ahead. That doesn't happen much these days. The paper may not yet be in profit, but it has turned its fortunes around. The same cannnot be said of The Times, which has seemingly no way out of producing the paper in both formats. Together with The Sunday Times, it loses about £25m a year, and you can be sure the Sunday paper makes no contribution to that loss. The Guardian made a profit of £7m last year, but The Observer loses more than that.
The Guardian is different from the other papers in that it is owned by a trust, has no shareholders, owes its origins to Manchester, and has enjoyed a period of commercial success quite unbelievable to people like me who joined the paper in the 1970s and knew the pressures of consistent losses. The paper excites loathing from those on the right who purport to hate all that it stands for, and devotion from an extremely loyal core readership. Neither group seems to have noticed that The Independent is well to the left of The Guardian these days.
It took a huge and brave step in moving a Manchester paper to London in the 1960s. It was another brave move to undertake such a radical redesign in the late 1980s. The Berliner step would be at least as radical, and involve commitment of capital - £50m has already been promised - that the group for years never had.
More importantly, it extends compact wars into the medium term. Whatever happens in the meantime - the circulation gap between The Guardian and The Independent narrowing a bit more? The Telegraph's new owners taking their own format decision? The Times still worrying how to extricate itself from the two-format trap? - nothing will be settled for a while. Even if the competitive situation changes only a little over the next year or two - and do not take that for granted - the arrival of a new Berliner format in 2006, at a time when readers are used to quality compacts, will grab plenty of attention. We may well be in a situation where we have three formats in the quality newspaper market: tabloid Independent, Berliner Guardian, broadsheet Telegraph. With The Times continuing the fence-sitter format.
Who said there wasn't choice in the UK market?
Whatever happened to Stephen Glover and his new newspaper? The Daily Mail and Spectator columnist, and one time founding father of The Independent, was making a lot of noise about his top-of-the-market, low-circulation quality daily paper about two months ago. He was, he told us, out there raising money - unrealistically low amounts I felt.
All the excitement about compact wars and the sale of the Telegraph have distracted us. We have not so much as thought about Glover and, for once, he is probably happy about that. As we report on page 3, he clearly isn't doing very well with his fundraising. He is said to be approaching rich individuals now, which smacks of last-ditch. He had hopes for Mail support, if it did not succeed in buying the Telegraph and still wanted to enter the quality market. Could Glover not be the vehicle? Well the Mail didn't get the Telegraph, but neither hasthe group said anything about the Daily Glover.
This was also to be of Berliner format. It doesn't look as though Glover will be first in the Berliner field. Or be in the field at all.
Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield
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