The Tabloid Situation

The Tabloid Situation

Could a shift to the smaller format be the salvation for today's troubled American newspapers--or newsprint's last gasp?

Read Time:
2m 52sec

the source: “Bye, Bye, Broadsheet” by Michael Wolff, in Vanity Fair, Oct. 2005.

“it’s like an ipod,” says editor Alan Rusbridger proudly of his new, petite Guardian. Shrunk down to near-tabloid size, the venerable left-wing newspaper has become the third British broad­sheet daily in the past few years to decide that small is beautiful. Could a shift to the smaller format be the salvation for today’s troubled American newspapers as well—or are these changes anachronistic newsprint’s last gasp?

The trend began in the fall of 2003, when the 200,000-circulation Independent, left-wing Avis to The Guardian’s Hertz, launched a parallel tabloid version of its broadsheet self—and immediately experienced a 20 percent rise in circulation. It soon broke earlier vows of continued fidelity to the older format. “Going tabloid—with big, bold, lacerating, crowd-pleasing, anti-war, anti-American, anti-Blair front pages—does for The Independent exactly what every worrywart (especially the ones at The Guardian) has said that the tabloid format would do: It makes everything louder, more simplistic, and appealing,” writes Michael Wolff, a Vanity Fair contributing editor.

The next desertion from the broadsheet ranks was far more shocking. Following swiftly on The Independent’s heels, The Times of London—for two centuries the very model of “the billowing, luxurious, upper-class broad­sheet, with its sweeping view of the world”—also turned tabloid. In the eyes of critics, this was only the latest chapter in the once-hallowed news­paper’s sad quarter-century descent into mediocrity under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch. Yet the tabloid format, Wolff points out, turned the paper’s blandness into a virtue in an era when people feel pressed for time. The new tabloid Times is “pure function,” a “news pill.”

Newspaper com­petition, a thing of the past in most American cities, is alive and well in London, which has five upmarket dailies and a half-dozen or so mid- and down-market tabloids. And the new quality tabloids have proven acceptable even to people whose upper-class status previously required them to turn up their noses at the rubbishy tabs. The broadsheet Guardian, whose circulation had been about 400,000, found itself losing readers not only to its left-wing com­petitor, The Independent, but to The Times, and even to a free morning tabloid put out by the mid-market Daily Mail.

The Guardian’s “iPod” solution, unveiled in September, is a smaller paper that is about three inches taller than the standard tabloid and is trying “to do the opposite of what a tabloid does,” observes Wolff. It retains the broadsheet’s “classic, hierarchical, multi-story front page,” and it preserves “that crucial, elemental newspaper distinction: the fold,” which serves the editorial function of distinguishing the important front-page stories from the lesser ones. With this anti­tabloid “emphasis on order, discernment, modulation,” the great left-wing paper is hoping “to occupy the pride of place once held by The Times, as paper of record, as paper at the center of British political life.” It’s also hoping, of course, to win back the circulation lost to the other quality tabs.

Since The Independent went “compact,” editor Simon Kelner says, 55 broadsheets around the world have followed suit, including, most recently, The Wall Street Journal’s European and Asian editions. No major broadsheets in the United States have made the change yet, says Wolff, but there’s little doubt that the big American newspaper chains, and even The New York Times, are watching “the British experiment” very closely.

More From This Issue