The talking is over. Now will the Berliner deliver?

Finally responding to the challenge laid down by the compact 'Independent', a new-look 'Guardian' launches tomorrow. Broadsheets have become an endangered species
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The Independent Online

Steady on! It isn't printed on parchment, or handwritten in monasteries. It has simply dared/happened/decided to remain a broadsheet when all around are shrinking. Tomorrow, The Guardian joins the shrinking majority, launching its Berliner format, smaller than a broadsheet, larger than a tabloid. It is used by a number of papers on the Continent such as Le Monde and La Repubblica. To maintain the global image the new type used for the new paper is called Guardian Egyptian.

I called in to see Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian's editor, during the week. His office is not brightly lit; it is dusky by day and twilight by night. Emerging from the shadows behind his large Mac screen, he was remarkably calm on the surface, considering the amount of money riding on his relaunch. New presses in the South-east and Manchester; a marketing campaign, even new perspex bins for newsagents to display what for Britain will be a bastard-sized paper.

And unlike the changes to compact format made by The Independent and The Times, there is no chance of turning back. Two years ago, when The Independent's editor, Simon Kelner, took the bold step of halving his paper's size, he was able to publish broadsheet and tabloid simultaneously to test the market. When The Times followed Kelner, it did the same. Had the tabloid produced no interest it could have been quietly dropped. The new Guardian is on an irreversible journey, because the new presses, which had to be built before the new paper could be published, cannot be switched back.

Anyway, nobody thinks like that. When the smaller Independent launched it shocked rivals by putting on circulation rapidly. It was largely responsible for a Guardian circulation loss of about 30,000. Indeed, the latest ABC circulation figures show why The Guardian needs its relaunch. Its circulation has dropped 6.3 per cent in a year. It used to sell around 400,000 consistently but last month's sales were 342,000. The Times has gained from going tabloid. While The Independent's sale has levelled out, the Murdoch title has grown by four to five per cent over the past year. It has been cheaper than its rivals (that is ending) and it has had a huge promotional spend. But the punters are buying it.

Downsizing has evidently been successful for both these titles. At a time when most newspaper sales are declining, they have risen. Can The Guardian do the same? Rusbridger will not put numbers on expectations. But others will. Advertisers will monitor the success of the new product; rivals too. Rusbridger, whose greatest achievement in his 10-year editorship has been the development of the Guardian Unlimited website with its massive worldwide presence, likes to link print and internet through brand, through reputation, through hits and sales. Sometimes it seems he is drawing some equation between the two.

Where he is clear is in being determined that his new product will be upmarket, and looking through the pile of dummy copies on his table it was evident that the new format will deliver this. Headlines are restrained, layout is elegant. There are many sections. The classified-based sections - that have delivered The Guardian so much revenue in the media, education and public-sector areas - are the Berliner size of the main section. But G2, the second section, was tabloid and is half Berliner now.

Rusbridger indicates that his newspaper will be moving away from its left-wing "niche". He told the journalists' trade paper Press Gazette: "If I had to choose between occupying a niche on the left or being nearer the centre, whether you display that through your news reporting or your comment or both, I'm more comfortable saying this is an upmarket mainstream newspaper."

Now that is a pretty Guardian kind of quote, particularly when later on the editor insists it will continue to be a "paper of the left". But that has always been so with The Guardian. It has been edited from the centre with a strong left-wing "corrective" among some columnists and reporters, of whom there are those who believe that over the past two years, particularly over the Iraq war, The Independent has stolen some of their leftish clothes. Interestingly The Guardian has signed former Times editor/columnist Simon Jenkins - anti-war, one-nation Tory - to write in the relaunched paper.

At least in the statements of their editors, The Independent and Guardian seem to be pursuing different left-of-centre editorial lines. It certainly sounds upmarket on both sides.

Some would argue that the public no longer want a clearly upmarket newspaper. The Times launched its new second section Times2 last week, majoring for three days on a sex survey reminiscent of any number of teen/twenties magazines. And The Telegraph has more characteristics of the Daily Mail all the time. Huge pictures of actresses and models. Stories about lesser celebrities. Great pictorial spreads across two pages. Attempts to win young readers by offers of downloads that must have half their readers baffled as to what downloads are.

But The Telegraph and The Times are the two biggest sellers in the so-called quality sector. Perhaps they know what the traditional quality audience wants and regard it as out-dated and pretentious for papers to be further upmarket. Perhaps the market is further fragmenting, so that Times/Telegraph and Independent/ Guardian are two distinct sub-sectors. In which case the battles between these pairings become more significant.

Before I left him, Rusbridger brought out his little band of light blue and white on dark blue. This was the new masthead or titlepiece, consigning the once iconic "TheGuardian" to history. Now it's theguardian. This was terribly secret and not to be mentioned, said alanrusbridger, as opposed to "AlanRusbridger". But then he went public and put it on the website. Shows how important the website is to him. Tomorrow, the battleground is print. We'll see.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield


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