By Beth Carney Last fall, British newspaper The Independent seemed to be in an irreversible circulation slide. The money-losing broadsheet was selling 219,000 copies a day, slightly more than half the number it sold in the early '90s. Media commentators were openly wondering whether its owners, Independent News & Media, would throw in the towel on the struggling daily.
Instead, editors started putting out two papers: The usual broadsheet and a new, tabloid version, with the same content and price. It proved to be so popular that in May the broadsheet version was ditched. Between May and October of this year, when Britain's other national dailies were losing readers, The Independent posted a year-on-year circulation boost of 19%.
SPREADING CHANGES. The Independent's dramatic turnaround has had a ripple effect in Britain's highly competitive newspaper world. "At the time, it seemed desperate," says Joe Breen, production editor for The Irish Times and regional director for the International Society for News Design. "But I think they showed great foresight and great understanding of the marketplace."
Two months after The Independent launched its tabloid, The Times of London began selling its own tabloid version, also containing the same content as the broadsheet. On Nov. 1, the 216-year-old Times, owned by News Corp. (NWS), abandoned its broadsheet altogether.
In August, the Edinburgh-based Scotsman reverted to the tabloid form it dropped in 1831. Another major London broadsheet, The Guardian, is also changing. The paper, which management estimates lost more than 5% of its readers to tabloid competitors in the past year, will remain a broadsheet but will shrink to halfway between its current size and the smaller tabloid form.
"WHAT CONSUMERS WANT." What's behind the format and size changes? Production costs are about the same for tabloids and broadsheets. The main advantage is convenience for readers, especially commuters. Bulky broadsheets are tough to read on subways and trains. "It's a slightly absurd size for the world on the move," says Marc Sands, marketing director for Guardian Newspapers. "If you were inventing a newspaper now, I think it's highly unlikely a broadsheet format would be considered."
The tabloid's appeal extends beyond mass-transit users, however. Although The Independent first launched its smaller version in London, where the concentration of commuters is high, the paper found tabloid sales outpaced the broadsheet even in areas with fewer commuters.
"If you look at the last 10 things you bought, everything's packaged according to your needs," says David Greene, marketing director of The Independent. "Most things are getting smaller. It's what consumers want."
GLOBAL TREND. Readers' preference for smaller-size papers is nothing new, according to Inge Van Gaal, the European coordinator for the International Newspaper Marketing Assn. But previously, broadsheet editors were reluctant to align themselves with a format associated with sensational journalism. But that attitude is changing, she notes. One reason: The popularity of free tabloid newspapers distributed in subways around Europe. Those papers have helped change the tabloid's image, while underscoring the public's appetite for convenience.
One obstacle to the change is that the papers must renegotiate contracts with advertisers, who pay for space by inches rather than by proportion of a page. Both Independent and Times officials acknowledge they have lost some advertising revenue as a result of the pricing shift that accompanied format change, but they say circulation gains will eventually make the papers more attractive to advertisers. In general, Van Gaal says, newspapers today are able to show advertisers that smaller ads in tabloids may be just as effective as larger ads in broadsheets.
Tabloid conversion is catching on elsewhere. Van Gaal says nine European broadsheets have begun producing a tabloid version since The Independent started its experiment, including Die Welt in Germany and De Standaard in Belgium.
CLASS DISTINCTIONS. The U.S., which is more conservative about newspaper design, hasn't yet seen a similar trend, says Mario Garcia, chief executive of Tampa-based design outfit Garcia Media. His company has designed four European broadsheet-to-tabloid conversions in the past year. Garcia predicts American newspapers will convert eventually and notes that attitudes are already starting to change.
"Five years ago, there was a total reluctance to even talk about the subject. Right now there's a willingness to at least see a prototype of how the product would look in a tabloid," Garcia says.
In Britain, where 11 London-based national papers compete fiercely each weekday, the divide between serious broadsheets and popular tabloids has also been pronounced. Even the Audit Bureau of Circulation, which has American and Canadian members, distinguishes between "quality" titles, which until recently were all broadsheets, and "mid-market" and "popular" offerings, all tabloid. Notably, throughout their transformation, editors at both the Times and The Independent have avoided the word "tabloid" in describing their new format, using instead the less loaded term "compact."
"BETTER POSITION." Since its conversion, the Times has seen circulation gains. From May through October, the paper's overall circulation was up 4% over the year-ago period. Every other national daily -- aside from The Independent -- experienced a circulation decline. More important, Times Editor Robert Thomson says, full-priced newsstand sales have seen an even bigger spike, and more women and young readers are buying the paper.
Circulation boosts aside, officials at both The Independent and the Times have acknowledged that the papers have lost money in recent years. According to the most recent government filings, Times Newspapers, the publisher of the daily Times and the Sunday Times (which has remained a broadsheet), lost $54.23 million in the year ended June, 2003. Figures for The Independent weren't available. Thomson remains optimistic. "Given the Times' recent history of not being profitable, it's in a better position to be profitable than at any other time," he says.
Whether format changes will be enough to stave off the long-term decline in newspaper readership is another question. Jim Chisholm, a newspaper consultant who acts as a strategy adviser for the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers, is doubtful.
DECLINING MARKET? Although Chisholm advocates the tabloid format because readers prefer it, he says a paper is only as good as its content. He points out that The Independent was successful largely because it was "an extremely good newspaper that deserved to have a better circulation than it did."
Such readership gains tend to come at the expense of other newspapers. "I don't believe tabloids will make the market grow," he says. Perhaps not, but the trend toward smaller-size newspapers is likely to expand. Carney is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in London