Nearly a year after The Times began publishing a compact edition alongside the broadsheet, the industry awaits the day when the Thunderer appears solely in the smaller format. It would be a moment in the paper's 219-year history to rival the decision in the 1960s to replace advertisements on the front page with editorial.
It is now purely a matter of when. Senior Times sources say that the decision to go all-compact has been made, and that the process will begin with the Saturday edition of the paper being made available only in compact form, with the weekday editions to follow. Some in the industry expect an all-compact Saturday edition to appear within a few weeks. Inside the paper last week, senior journalists were talking of a January switch. Either way, the day is not far off, with The Times following the strategy previously employed to great effect by our sister paper, The Independent. For a few months after its compact launch just over a year ago, it too appeared in both formats. Then the broadsheet was dropped on Saturdays before, in May, it went all-compact.
In the past month the focus at The Times has shifted from the broadsheet to the compact, with the latter now being produced first and the traditional version of The Times no longer distributed at all in Scotland and parts of the West Country.
Ditching the broadsheet completely will be a huge gamble for The Times, many of whose readers remain firmly wedded to the larger format despite strenuous efforts on the part of its owner, News International, to persuade them of the virtues of the compact.
Discounts have been offered to subscribers to switch, and newsagents have been encouraged to push the smaller edition, but complaints have come in from readers who want the "proper" Times. News International executives, however, believe that the compact is attracting large numbers of younger readers. An upbeat editor, Robert Thomson, says the paper has "a demography to die for, not one that shows your readers are going to die, as is the case with the Telegraph".
Despite Thomson's confidence, the experiment has not been an unalloyed success so far. The rise in circulation has been modest, especially compared with that enjoyed by The Independent, and some commentators have accused The Times's compact of being tabloid in content as well as format.
Journalists complained that more serious stories were severely cut when they appeared in the compact, if they appeared at all. As our analysis of Friday's Times shows, lighter and more sensationalist stories are regularly given greater prominence in the compact, where, say Times writers, there is little room for the medium-length article. "Everything is either a page lead or a news in brief [nib]," says one. "So some stories are blown out of proportion and others are squeezed into a nib, both of which are very frustrating. And it's just plain bemusing when your story appears in one edition but not the other."
One journalist closely involved with the compact defends the product. "Of course there were mistakes," he says. "We were on a huge learning curve. It was actually more amazing that it happened at all." He also refuses to accept the charge that the compact pursues a more downmarket line. "Because we were aware that people might say we were dumbing down we actually made the news agenda more serious. We carried more foreign news, for instance."
Paul Thomas, press director at MindShare media agency, thinks that a fully-compact Times makes sense. "From a financial point of view it always had to happen," he says. "There is trading confusion in running two products, particularly for advertisers." Thomas believes that The Times launched its compact for the wrong reasons - "They looked at the success of The Independent and said 'we want a bit of that'. And then did it sooner than they wanted to" - but that the move has stopped the paper's circulation decline. He sees a fully-compact Times opening a new battlefront with the Daily Mail. "I think they'll lose some dyed-in-the-wool readers to the Telegraph," he says. "But the compact has moved towards the mid-market and the Mail. The Mail has very deep pockets, but so does Murdoch. It's going to be very interesting."
Staff at The Times are divided over the merits of going completely tabloid, although senior executives are unanimous that it is inevitable. Many, however, have not been told about the impending change, and the official line from The Times's director of communications, Anoushka Healy, is that "there are no plans - it's all extreme speculation".
The figures alone make a compelling case for the move. The latest showed The Times and The Sunday Times making losses of £28.65m in one year, and the next set of figures are expected to be worse. The additional cost of producing two versions of the paper is estimated at up to £15m. But Thomson calls such numbers "wild", and says the real figure is "a fraction of that".
Those associated with the Times's compact are also bullish about maintaining similar advertising rates for a full page in the compact as for a full page in the broadsheet. "Advertisers go into the Daily Mail happily," said one. "Once they're reassured that they're reaching the same audience as they were with the broadsheet you'll get roughly the same rate."
Insiders say that Thomson was never "really convinced" about introducing the compact. One source says: "Robert's one of those Australians who thinks nothing's serious unless it's in a broadsheet. But Murdoch is at heart a tabloid man, and if he thinks a tabloid Times is the best way to fulfill his desire, from which he has never faltered, to overtake the Telegraph, that's what he'll do."
One who knows Thomson well does not expect him to be a long-term editor of the paper. "He has no ties with this country at all. I think what he'd really like is a job in China." Such an opportunity for Thomson, whose wife is Chinese, is, naturally, within the Murdoch gift. And it may be a well-deserved prize if he succeeds in overseeing the weighty task of transforming The Times from a broadsheet to a compact.