Why the Times had to change

Many of its readers may disagree, but there's no turning back the tide
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When rumours began to spread in the newspaper industry last month that The Times had decided to bite the bullet and give up its traditional broadsheet edition and move entirely to the tabloid format, the paper's response was disingenuous.

When rumours began to spread in the newspaper industry last month that The Times had decided to bite the bullet and give up its traditional broadsheet edition and move entirely to the tabloid format, the paper's response was disingenuous.

In a reaction that sounded rather like the pronouncements of a Government, The Times dismissed the reports as "extreme speculation." Specialists in the art of disinformation noted that The Times could simply have said the reports were untrue - but had not done so. The official response was rather typical of how The Times has behaved since it first launched a tabloid - or compact edition - last November.

The Times editor Robert Thompson then trumpeted the development as an "historic first" which was very odd when in terms of recent history it was very much an historic second - months behind the example set by The Independent. In fact Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of The News Corporation, owners of The Times was much more blunt and honest. He praised The Independent for paving the way and admitted that on its own The Times could not have gone tabloid for fear of being accused of dumbing down the paper. In a very real way The Independent therefore gave The Times "permission" to make the dramatic change in format.

On Friday afternoon The Times finally admitted what everyone in the industry had suspected that from today it is going wholly compact from Monday to Saturday. As Mr Thompson said " it is a significant moment in the 216-year history of The Times." Indeed it is, and he went on to promise that in its new guise the "traditional virtues and values that have made The Times respected around the world" would be upheld.

The hurried launch bore all the hallmarks of how many decisions get taken in News Corp. When Rupert Murdoch wants something he wants it now and few careers are enhanced by suggestions that it might be wiser to wait and do some more planning.

Initially the compact edition was simply produced by each desk on the paper seconding one of its sub-editing staff. But it was at the distribution end of the business - the newsagents - where the real mayhem occurred.

Either because they preferred to handle the smaller edition or more probably that they received, at least at the outset, financial incentives to promote the compact, strange stories were spread. Hundreds of readers called to complain that they had been given the compact when they wanted the broadsheet. Why has The Times now changed its mind? The answer is a mixture of the ruinous cost of dual production and distribution added to the original losses the paper was already suffering combined with the clear opportunity to increase sales. Among the young, women and in metropolitan commuter belts there is clear evidence of a preference for a compact format. Newspapers are under the competitive cosh from the ever-expanding electronic media and if you can boost sales just by changing the size of the product who in their right mind would not do so? The latest official circulation figures for September show The Times on a circulation of 660,906 - 1.98 per cent up on August and a September year on year rise of 4.5 per cent. With the sales of most national newspaper down year-on-year clearly something of importance is happening here. The Independent did even better - albeit from a smaller base. The September sales figure of 264,594 was up 0.76 per cent on August, but up no less than 21 per cent year-on-year.

But can The Times expect to get anything like so large a percentage rise by going completely over to the compact format? Probably not, at least for some time. The paper has done a poor job of preparing readers for the change to come by releasing information on the permanence, or otherwise of the broadsheet, that sometimes verged on the misleading.

Meanwhile the management of The Times have gradually chipped away at the hard core who remain committed to the broadsheet in the hope that they could be bounced into the change. The change was carried out region by region with Ireland, Scotland and parts of the West Country having their broadsheet editions withdrawn without warning. Will the anecdotal evidence of Times readers demanding their broadsheet "or else" turn out to be true and influence purchasing decisions? Or will the harrumphing majors of Cheltenham have their complaint in the pub and then go on buying The Times?

A full-scale desertion of the broadsheet readers is unlikely. Those who are addicted to The Times crossword puzzle, or its letters or obituary columns are unlikely to suddenly decamp to The Guardian. The move could however shake readership loyalty and some of those dissident Times readers could end up, at the very least, sampling rival publications.

The move, however unsettling it may be in the short term for traditional Times readers, is an important example of serious newspapers reinventing themselves for a more competitive media age.

The fact that both The Independent and The Times are now wholly compact will put enormous pressure on The Guardian which has being losing out in sales over the past year - partly because of the resurgence of The Independent. The Guardian Media Group has decided to go to a "midi" size half way between a broadsheet and a tabloid based on the format of continental European newspapers such as the Berliner. Unfortunately presses of that size do not exist in the UK so the Guardian will have to wait for new presses to be manufactured and installed. Meanwhile the market could continue to drift against the paper.

The case of the Daily Telegraph, now owned by the Barclay Brothers, is the most interesting of all. The paper, which saw a circulation fall of 3.6 per cent in the past 12 months to 900,702, will now see an opportunity in the market. Until the entire newspaper world goes totally tabloid and the larger format follows the way of the dodo, the Telegraph will soon be able to market itself not just as "a bestseller" but as the last remaining quality broadsheet. It might even help to reverse the paper's decline and retain choice of format in the market.