The compact revolution: size isn't everything

'The Independent' has dropped its broadsheet edition. How will its bigger rivals respond?
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Last week a newspaper died. This is usually a very sad event - I know, I've been involved in one - happening after a long period of decline and financial trauma and ultimately futile attempts to turn the paper round. Yesterday's death, however, was a happy event, not a blessed release. The Independent closed its daily broadsheet edition after 18 years, following the remarkable success of the launch of its compact, or tabloid, version last September.

Last week a newspaper died. This is usually a very sad event - I know, I've been involved in one - happening after a long period of decline and financial trauma and ultimately futile attempts to turn the paper round. Yesterday's death, however, was a happy event, not a blessed release. The Independent closed its daily broadsheet edition after 18 years, following the remarkable success of the launch of its compact, or tabloid, version last September.

It is hard to write about a sister newspaper and persuade the audience of the detachment of one's view. Would he write, they might ask, of the dramatic decline in The Independent's sale if that were the case? Two things: I bring semi-detachment, because I contribute to this newspaper, rather than being employed by it; and yes, in this case, because it is part of the story, decline has to be mentioned, too.

The launch on 30 September last year of the compact Independent was one of the more dramatic moments in modern newspaper history. In the unique national newspaper market that we have in this country, tabloid had long been associated with the lower end of the market. The public, for no particular reason other than tradition, went along with the idea of size dictating content.

It was challenged in the middle market when the Mail and Express went tabloid. It was challenged all over the country with regional evening papers adopting the smaller format. But at the so-called quality end of the national market it was regarded as a step too far. The Guardian thought about it hard back in the 1980s when the then editor was much absorbed by the mainland European taste for compact newspapers. But while that newspaper led the way with successful tabloid sections, it never went all the way.

Meanwhile, The Independent was launched in 1986 in a blaze of publicity surrounding its name and mode of ownership. It immediately caught on with a young, affluent, southern, liberal section of the community. But the dream was not to last through the economic downturn, and bad times lay ahead in the 1990s. The unique style of spread ownership gave way to more traditional publishers moving in, including the Mirror Group. Stability only came when ownership moved to Tony O'Reilly's international publishing company. All the while, sales slipped, and there were many who predicted a black future for the two Independents, the daily and the Sunday.

While the decision to go compact was brave, innovative and exciting, it was less risky than it would have been for, say, the Telegraph, which, like The Guardian, still agonises about whether to take the smaller format direction. The Independent's sale was falling month by month in the period leading up to the compact moment.

Then everything changed. Every month since the launch (except December) sale has risen, with the latest independently audited circulation figure moving over 260,000, the highest figure since October 1997. It has increased more than 40,000 since the compact was launched, up 15 per cent year on year, with market share at its highest level for eight years. Throughout this period The Independent has been available in both broadsheet and compact formats.

There is more to newspaper success than size, and the next six months will be harder for the paper than the last. Although it remains the smallest selling quality paper - 120,000 copies behind The Guardian, its nearest rival - the 70,000 circulation swing from The Guardian to The Independent is significant. The Independent is also the fastest growing title in the sector. The Times followed The Independent in offering the paper in the two sizes, and this has had a positive, if less dramatic, effect on sale. The fair wind of success has brought a series of awards to The Independent and priceless publicity. Simon Kelner, the editor, said last week that readers soon got used to a change of format, and then success was down to content. That, one always hopes, should be the true test of a newspaper. RIP broadsheet Indy.

They are both Mirror men, even if one has been away from the paper for 10 years, while the other has been out for just two days. Alastair Campbell was political editor of that paper before he joined the New Labour project. Piers Morgan was editor of the Mirror until the hoax Iraq "torture" pictures brought about his downfall. While Morgan tried to defend his paper and himself from the allegations that the pictures he had published were fakes, Campbell pursued his critique of the media in front of a Commons select committee. Both have huge egos.

Campbell has gone a stage further by taking his ego on tour, assuming there are people out there who will buy tickets and fill theatres to listen to one man talking about himself. There are. Doubtless Morgan will consider doing the same, although he is more of a TV performer, with his Tabloid Tales of Jordan and Posh and the celebrity set.

Campbell became a celebrity through his far from understated approach to the job of Downing Street press secretary. He loved being at the centre of power, being not just around government but a key player within government, a man with more access to the Prime Minister than most of the Cabinet. He overcame any affection he felt for the journalistic colleagues he left behind in the lobby when he joined New Labour.

He became the personification of the arrogance of a government which thought it could play with words and avoid responsibility. He did not invent spin, but he ran an operation that took news management to new levels of sophistication. He grew feelings of superiority over the media.

And last week he was back, giving evidence to the committee of MPs examining government communications. As a reporter he would go to press conferences, attack the then Conservative government, and attack government secrecy. As an ex-Downing Street communications director he told the MPs that journalists ask idiotic questions, write drivel and tell lies, that political journalists aren't interested in politics. He saidhe was in favour of freedom of information. And he said that spin came not from politicians and their press officers but from journalists.

Does he really believe that? I am bound to think that he does, because he does not lie and we have Lord Hutton's word for that. No doubt his mood on Friday night was similar to his mood after the publication of the Hutton report. No doubt he punched the air. He told the select committee that Morgan's position would be untenable if the Mirror "torture" pictures were fakes. Morgan told the world he knew he was right. He was wrong. Campbell has always known he was right. He was right.

Morgan had to go, and neither he nor Andrew Gilligan have helped the reputation of journalists. And yet the public does not believe that the only case against the politicians is built on lies. The public finds it hard to see the politicians as whiter than white. And the public does not believe that all the tragic complexities of the post-war Iraq situation are the product of a media conspiracy. In the short term, Morgan had to go. At least we were spared a long speech by Campbell, such as he gave after the Hutton verdicts.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield


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