On Tuesday, The Independent will make newspaper history. For the first time a newspaper will be sold in two different sizes. You pay your 60p and you take your choice: the traditional broadsheet size or a new tabloid-size edition of the paper. The content will be identical in both broadsheet and tabloid. The simple choice of size that consumers have every day with products ranging from toothpaste to cars will now be applied to a daily paper.
At first, this will be limited to the M25 area; but if the experiment is successful, it could spread to other parts of the country.
The initial reaction from the industry has been remarkably positive. Brian MacArthur, media commentator of The Times and a former Fleet Street editor, praises a "clever" strategy and "impressive" dummies, and concludes that "within 10 to 20 years all the broadsheets will go tabloid". Even The Guardian, not known for its generosity to rival broadsheets, acknowledges, on its website at least, that the response from media buyers has been "extremely positive".
One of these, Claudine Collins at Mediacom, calls it "a fantastic idea, because there are a lot of people, myself included, who want a more intelligent read, but cannot be bothered to go on the train or Tube and read a broadsheet newspaper. We went through it closely to see if there was anything missing and there was not. It is not dumbing down, it is just smaller."
This view was echoed in the media trade journals. Speaking to Media Week, Ollie Joyce, general manager at ZenithOptimedia, said: "It gives a very positive message that The Independent is willing to try something based on consumer insight. The Independent was launched with innovation in mind, and that's what the brand should be about."
Nevertheless, it would be foolish, even in a sister paper, to underestimate the skills that will be needed to make this unprecedented leap. The constraints that a smaller size puts on editorial - fewer stories on a page, more dominant pictures etc - can easily affect the ethos of a paper if one is not vigilant. And, of course, the separateness of broadsheets and tabloids has always been more marked in this country than anywhere else. The two words to many people suggest upmarket and downmarket journalism. The Independent's tabloid will aim to change the language of newspapers as well as their shape and design.
In his office, surrounded by the dummies of the new tabloid prepared every night last week, Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent, acknowledges that the words "tabloid" and "broadsheet" have each traditionally suggested a different ethos.
He says: "One of the problems we have to overcome is the fact that in Britain, alone in the Western world, the word 'tabloid' is used pejoratively. We're not going to change those preconceptions overnight. But I know that when people see our tabloid they will see that it is a quality product, and it will be instantly recognisable as The Independent. That has certainly been the reaction of people who have seen the dummies.
"The rationale is that we are responding to reader demand. In the five and a half years I have been editor, we have carried out a huge amount of market research, and one consistent theme we have found, particularly in London, is that commuters say 'We like The Independent and broadsheets generally, but on the Tube or train they are unmanageable.' That led me to think that it would be a good idea if we serviced that need.
"Then I was in a supermarket, and you see all the consumer products available in different shapes and sizes. And I thought newspapers are one of the few consumer products that don't give their buyers a choice. So we looked at every aspect of it, and set up a feasibility study. And now we're the first newspaper in the world to give our readers a choice."
Kelner says he first started talking about the idea a year ago; it became a realistic proposition when Ivan Fallon arrived as chief executive of Independent News & Media and embraced the idea, as did the group's executive chairman, Sir Anthony O'Reilly, and the board. It's an enthusiasm that has been translated into cash to ensure the project's success. "Tony has backed up the idea with a substantial amount of money for marketing and investment," says Kelner.
While Kelner is confident about the editorial appeal of the new tabloid, he agrees the vital factor in the whole process is the point of sale. For newsagents and wholesalers, just as much as journalists, this is new territory.
Kelner says: "It has been a difficult thing to organise because this is such a new concept. There are 8,000 newsagents in the Greater London area, and our representatives are going to visit each and every one of them. We're doing everything we can. We have provided shelf stackers and perspex bins. For advertisers, we had a breakfast and a lunch some days ago with the main agencies and media buyers, and the response so far has been very encouraging."
The launch of the tabloid edition this week will be accompanied by another innovation, a second section every Friday devoted to cultural coverage. The books pages are moving from the magazine to go alongside music, film and general arts features and reviews to form the new Friday Review.
Perhaps most of all, Kelner, who was with The Independent when it launched in 1986, is thrilled that offering readers a choice between broadsheet and tabloid will renew the paper's spirit of adventure. "One of the things that's very important about this," he says, "is that it re-establishes our reputation for innovation and imagination. Since our launch nearly 17 years ago, that has been an intrinsic quality of The Independent."Reuse content