The Berliner: too little? Too big? Or too late?

Even at 'The 'Guardian', where they try not to shout, this is a historic departure and a big risk

Sometimes The Guardian is so self-effacing. It has been known for some time that it plans to launch a new format newspaper, sized between the traditional broadsheet and the tabloid, or compact. But last week it announced that the relaunch will happen in the autumn, with The Observer following the format change early next year. It placed the announcement modestly on page 19. Clearly as relaunch day draws closer the wick will have to be turned up.

Sometimes The Guardian is so self-effacing. It has been known for some time that it plans to launch a new format newspaper, sized between the traditional broadsheet and the tabloid, or compact. But last week it announced that the relaunch will happen in the autumn, with The Observer following the format change early next year. It placed the announcement modestly on page 19. Clearly as relaunch day draws closer the wick will have to be turned up.

For The Guardian it is a major landmark in its 184-year history, comparable with the dropping of the word "Manchester" from its title or the radical redesign of 1988. Much is at stake, nearly two years after The Independent surprised the quality newspaper market by halving its size and putting up its sale by a quarter.

The Guardian took stock. It was difficult for a paper that prided itself on its radical approach to follow a competitor. But it soon became clear that the paper had to do something. The two compacts (The Times had followed quickly) were putting on sale; the two broadsheets were losing.

Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian editor, emerged from his period of contemplation clutching a Berliner - this is the name given to the midway format The Guardian has chosen. The area of the page is two-thirds that of the broadsheet - the tabloid is half - and Le Monde is one of the better known examples. Rusbridger persuaded his board and the Scott Trust, owner of the Guardian Media Group, that the new format was the way to go, and that £50m should be spent delivering it. So the stakes are high. And Rusbridger's name is written all over the project. Even in the forgiving atmosphere of The Guardian, he could surely not survive a Berliner failure.

The launch announcement came now because the advertising world was being briefed about the new paper, and the printing presses, in east London and Manchester, were installed ahead of schedule and are nearly ready to run. They can provide colour on every page, which is increasingly demanded by advertisers and lucrative to the publisher.

Rusbridger says this has helped in discussions with the advertising agencies about rates to be charged in the new format paper. This is one of the complicated areas of downsizing. How much can you charge the advertisers when the page size is half or two-thirds what it was before?

Most editors involved in launches or relaunches will tell you that the response from the trade, focus groups and ad agencies on being shown dummies of the new product is one of total enthusiasm. Rusbridger is no exception. He says the new paper will be upmarket of the present one, providing material "outside the comfort zone of The Guardian".

With 18- to 25-year-olds thinking that the internet is better than newspapers, and serious newspapers all over the Western world losing sale or spending vastly on promotion, Rusbridger believes a "retreat to journalism fundamentals" is needed. He wants his Berliner to be "an intelligent voice that's not going to tell you what to think".

And in a gloves-off (in a civilised Guardian manner of course) reference to his rival editor Simon Kelner of The Independent, he says he wants his paper to be a newspaper not a "viewspaper". Kelner's compact paper has taken readers from The Guardian, and he has used the "viewspaper" line to insist his circulation gains have been influenced by his paper's attitude.

Rusbridger is reluctant to say how he would measure success for the Berliner Guardian. He knows that for the first few days there will be a distorted uplift as people try the new format. The crucial time is after the valuable sampling period ends, and the sale steadies. Kelner would never have predicted how much the compact Independent sale would grow. Rusbridger looks for sale to grow modestly and hopes to recapture some of the readers lost to the Indy during the Iraq war. But he knows there are factors he cannot control, such as Murdoch suddenly cutting the price of The Times or adding to the DVD avalanche.

The new Guardian will be folded in half, like a broadsheet, the supplements within the fold rather than in the body of the paper, as is the case with the Times and Independent. It will appear the smallest paper on the block. The sales bins used in supermarkets and motorway service areas have tabloid slots to accommodate the papers of that size and the folded broadsheets. How will the Berliner Guardian be displayed? Rusbridger says only that they are "working on the retail area".

Compact wars are not dying down. Martin Newland, Telegraph editor, is said to be increasingly voicing his desire to go tabloid. And in September a new front will open: we will have a three-format serious end of the market. Size clearly matters to editors of upmarket newspapers.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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