The March of the Tabloids
Everything makes a comeback. There is an eternal renaissance of essential things. In journalism, design, literature and art. Things tend to simplify themselves. As life in the big cities turns more chaotic, technology becomes more accessible with wireless, fast communication available to larger masses of the population. For the printed media, this translates into smaller formats, more reader-friendly for users who seek simpler storytelling, quicker messages, and who seem to prefer, as in everything else, the smaller packages.
In the case of newspapers, we have had to wait a long time and climb a steep mountain to get to this exciting moment in which more newspapers are looking at smaller formats as an option. For many, it is already a reality. Conversion from broadsheet to tabloid has paid off: Readers like it, advertisers get used to it faster than anyone thought, and the "wave" of tabloid conversions extends globally. Even the United States is taking a peek into what some of their newspapers will look like in a format other than the huge broadsheet that has served as the canvas for decades.
Who would have guessed only 20 years ago that this would be the case? In 1999, when the American Press Institute sponsored a seminar about "the newspaper of the future," many of those invited to present their visions displayed electronic newspapers, tablets, and, of course, broadsheets with touches of electronic navigational techniques. I opted for a micro format (A4 for the Europeans, 8 1.2 x 11 for others), which we designed with the assistance of Rodrigo Fino and Paula Ripoll in our Garcia Media Latinoamerica office in Buenos Aires. I mentioned at the time that by the year 2020, most newspapers would be converted to smaller formats. If that seminar were held today, I would place the date much sooner.
In the United States, it was the San Francisco Examiner that dared to make the transition from a traditional broadsheet to a classic tabloid about the same time that conversions were beginning to take place in Europe. As of this writing, the tide has changed dramatically, with several major U.S. newspapers announcing intentions to consider a smaller format.
Suddenly, tabloids are protagonists in a play about newspaper survival, adaptation to change and a spirit of renovation. Ironically, tabloid formats were always protagonists in the life of the reader. The tabloid wave has swept from New Zealand and Australia to the pampas of Argentina, and, of course, the four corners of Europe. It is, I believe, unstoppable. The tabloidization of newspapers is a global phenomenon.
We will see how, one by one, the largest and best known newspaper titles around the world will make the transition to smaller formats.
A little history
It is not surprising that the birth of tabloids, around 1830, was accompanied by two characteristics that are, ironically, the same that motivate publishers and editors to convert to smaller formats today: 1. Catering to "readers in a hurry," specifically in cities with large numbers of commuters in public transportation environments. 2. Offering a unique journalistic formula generous in human interest stories, police news, entertainment and sports.
But there was always room for stories that led to what some historians call the "birth of investigative journalism," as tabloid newspapers in the U.S. and the United Kingdom published extensive reports about prostitution and police corruption.
However, it is with the early tabloids in large metropolitan areas that one first sees human interest stories on page one, presented with greater visual impact than ever before, with images playing as important a role as text. It was, indeed, Charles A. Dana, editor of The New York Sun, who announced to readers: "The Sun will specialize in presenting the news in a concise manner, with greater clarity, and will attempt to present a photographic report of significant events taking place in the world, but always doing it in a friendly, entertaining manner."
Tabloid: Not a dirty word
Nobody doubts this fact: Many editors and publishers still relate tabloid to lower quality journalism. Despite the recent success of quality newspapers, such as The Times of London, converting to tabloid, the "myth" of tabloids as less than quality prevails in the minds of many inside newsrooms. I find the myth difficult to debunk, despite what research shows us about readers preferring the smaller formats (a majority of readers, especially younger ones, do), as well as the circulation success of those newspapers making the transition. (Sixteen newspapers that changed formats have seen an average 4.6 percent increase in circulation, according to "The Bottom Line of Broadsheet-to-Compact Format Change," an INMA (International Newspaper Marketing Association) Report, February 2005.)
It is this myth of the tabloid or, better yet, the irrational fear of some editors and publishers of the word "tabloid" itself that keeps many from contemplating the idea of testing their newspaper in a smaller format. Using stereotypes, and even worse, formats, to determine what constitutes serious versus sensational journalism is not going to lead to better products.
A probable question is: What constitutes serious journalism today? For many editors, it begins with a newspaper in the broadsheet format. For readers, fortunately, it is decided by content and presentation, not on the size of the sheet on which it is printed. In my almost 35 years in this business, I have never participated in a focus group or reader test in which two formats -- one large, one smaller -- were presented when the majority of readers did not go immediately toward the smaller format. This is a trend I have seen in the United States as early as 1984, and, since then, globally.
Simon Kelner, editor-in-chief of London's The Independent, one of the first quality newspapers to make a 2003 switch to a tabloid format, has said that "newspapers are the only product whose size and form are determined by those who produce it, and not by those who consume it." The Independent and The Times are both excellent examples of successful conversions, not just because they adopted the smaller formats readers preferred, but because editors of both newspapers also looked at content enhancements, styles of storytelling, and ways to make their products more fun and easy to navigate as they went to a different, more manageable format. This is as it should be with redesign in any format. The numbers plainly testify to the success of these conversions: The Independent's circulation rose 15.5 percent versus its pre-tabloid numbers; The Times experienced a four percent increase over its pre-tabloid numbers.
A PDF of the full 24-page text from which this article is excerpted, "The Impact of The Compact," with case studies and illustrations of a number of tabloid redesigns, can be downloaded from www.garcia-media.com.
Dr. Mario Garcia is a Poynter Institute Affiliate Faculty Member and news design consultant who has worked with more than 500 news organizations around the globe. His firm has assisted more than 16 broadsheet newspapers in converting to tabloid, and has redesigned more than 60 tabloids which retained their format.