Will they, won't they, should they, shouldn't they?

On The Press: As rivals succeed in tabloid format, the 'Telegraph' reverts to type
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The Independent Online

Three characteristics separate the Telegraph from its rivals in the quality sector of the daily newspaper market: it has the highest circulation; it is the only broadsheet (leaving aside the specialist Financial Times); and it has been through a period of turmoil with changes of ownership, management, editor and senior editorial personnel.

Having made a noise through the Conrad Black scandal, the Barclays takeover, the removalof editor Martin Newland (and his counterparts at The Sunday Telegraph) and a flirtation with the compact revolution, the Telegraph Group was happy to withdraw from the spotlight.

Then a media village storm broke with a story in The Observer last Sunday that a tabloid Telegraph was back on the agenda, as well as "lite", regional and cut-down versions. The article said this was "part of a wider project to reinvent the paper for the digital age". Now there is something oxymoronic about associating the Telegraph titles with such projects; by and large, its readers are pretty hostile to reinvention and have reservations about the digital age.

After The Independent had broken the mould with spectacular success as a compact, and The Times had quickly reacted with its own downsizing, Telegraph tabloid dummies were indeed prepared by then editor Mr Newland. But at the time he was editing a newspaper carrying a "for sale" sign and it was not the moment for revolutionary change. This, however, gives the lie to the idea that the paper would not contemplate such a step - and indeed one section, sport, was turned into a tabloid.

Such is the reaction of senior Telegraph figures to the latest suggestion of renewed tabloid interest that you might think they were about to back New Labour. Chief executive Murdoch MacLennan denied it: "The Telegraph definitely has no plans to go tabloid at this time."

The Barclay brothers dislike being written about, and this extends to distaste for media commentary in general. They will disapprove of the current talk, just as they are thought to have disliked having Roy Greenslade bestride their pages offering his views on the media.

The nub of this storm in what will surely be a bone china teacup (the Telegraph would use nothing inferior) is this. The group is preparing for a very expensive and complicated London office move from Canary Wharf to Buckingham Palace Road.

It is, in common with its rivals, designing in far more integration - both human and technological - of its online and print editorial operations. It is, in common with its rivals, subjecting its website to redevelopment and expansion and is producing podcasts and blogs.

Where it differs from its rivals is in the age profile of its print readers. The average is 56, which means that a lot of them are much older than that. And they are the ones who take out the 300,000 or so subscriptions which provide them with a Telegraph title seven days a week for a substantially reduced price - and allow the circulation of the paper to be 900,000.

These are the most loyal readers, who would surely buy the paper at full price, which has always struck me as strange. They are not bloggers and podders. Nor are they, in the main, potential tabloiders, which is why I believe that downsizing is not imminent.

It is why the policy of editor-in-chief John Bryant, a man very much in the subscription age group himself, to return both the Daily and Sunday Telegraph to their traditional roots is sensible for the medium term. The Telegraph oldies are not much into yoof culture and celebrity, and both papers were going too far in that direction.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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