The Media Column: Even 'The Times' could get hurt in this tabloid revolution

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When, 120 years ago, Henry Wellcome awoke at 4.30 one morning to give birth to the word "tabloid" - history does not record whether or not he shouted "Eureka!" - he sure started something. The most reviled word in journalism until circumstances dictated that "red-top" should replace it as the expression most likely to require mouths being scrubbed clean with soap and water, it now has the newspaper business in a stranglehold.

Not that Henry Wellcome would care. The director of a British pharmaceuticals company, he combined tablet and alkaloid to describe a new tonic. The irresistible rise of the tabloid newspaper was started, most historians agree, by Alfred Harmsworth, later the first Lord Northcliffe, who in 1901 hijacked the term when, asked by Joseph Pulitzer to supervise the relaunch of the New York World, he decided to fold the paper in half.

The tabloid revolution - or, in the terminology those currently involved prefer, the adoption of a compact shape and size - gathered pace through the last century, but is now rolling like a juggernaut through areas of the industry that previously had taken to the barricades. This newspaper, having experimented with a compact edition, soon found that readers preferred it to the larger format and its broadsheet bit the dust. That dust has yet to settle at those titles clinging to their traditional shapes, and at The Times some feel that it has clouded the vision of those in charge.

The paper has been owned for not far short of a quarter-century by Rupert Murdoch, and its fortunes have swung dramatically back and forth in that time - often as the result of Murdoch's combative, provocative price-cutting. When the price cuts bit the backsides of the paper's competitors, the result was increased circulation but greater losses for The Times. When the pricing policy's teeth were withdrawn, circulation tended to slip and losses were still very substantial. No one can really remember when The Times made a profit.

But Mr Murdoch's latest capricious move, to swiftly follow The Independent with a compact edition to run in tandem with the broadsheet, has had what critics and some employees see as even more calamitous repercussions.

An annual extra loss of £15m has been guesstimated. A solid core of readers is reputed to have decided it prefers the old format. The fact that a score of senior journalists have departed - some unwillingly - has been taken as indicative of the paper being stranded in a no man's land that makes it impossible even to contemplate switching to become solely compact in the foreseeable future. The atmosphere at Wapping, where News International's other titles fear serious cutbacks because of The Times's predicament, is said to be gloomy.

Yet if editor Robert Thomson (below) is dispirited by heavy flak and the enormity of the task ahead, senior sources at NI say they see no sign of it. Indeed, they point out that, contrary to rumour, only about 10 per cent of readers will never budge from the broadsheet. What's more, Thomson has not only doubled the number of foreign staff correspondents in the past two years - overall, there are still 50 more journalists on the paper than when he arrived - but is still hiring talent: the op-ed and business pages have been strengthened and executives instructed to recruit a senior news reporter and a top production journalist. Hardly the actions of a drowning man, argue Thomson's supporters.

But what of those staggering and increasing losses? Wildly exaggerated, I am assured. The annual cost of producing different size editions every day is "nothing like the £15m cited, and is even significantly less that the £5m others have suggested". (This was told to me somewhat reluctantly: a wildly inflated figure is a powerful deterrent to potential competitors.) As for speculation by Andrew Neil, a former Murdoch editor, that losses could amount to £50m, nobody at NI takes it - or him, it seems - seriously.

None the less, with The Guardian having announced that it is to adopt a mid-size format in 2006 and the Barclay brothers almost obliged to accept the compact challenge at some point if The Daily Telegraph is to retain its market leadership, even the boundless resources of The Times will be stretched for standards to be maintained. Mr Thomson's admirable belief that quality journalism will win through in the end, no matter what size paper it is printed on - he is said to be about to revamp the disappointing Saturday issue of The Times - is admirable. But how long can two sets of readers be juggled before one plunges to earth?