Watch Out, Broadsheet: Tabloid Power is Gonna Get Your Mama

If I were an editor or publisher of a broadsheet newspaper in any
corner of the United States, I’d be paying close attention to a
powerful trend affecting the future of newspapers around the
world: big papers are converting to smaller formats.

Size
matters. But one size does not fit all. Yet the trend is smaller,
smaller, smaller. Watch them shrink from the 54-inch to the 50-inch
web; from broadsheet to what in Europe they call “compact” sizes: from
the “super tab,” known as the Berliner, down to the traditional tabloid.

In
countries like England and the Netherlands, converts are popping up
like reformed sinners at a tent revival. In places like Poland and
South Africa, wild and wooly tabs are testing boundaries and building
readership with a reckless democratic energy.

And
while the word “tabloid” often connotes sensationalism, celebrity and
sexuality, some of the world’s most traditional and historical news
journals have exchanged the formal gown for the mini-skirt.

Under the design leadership of Mario Garcia, the European edition of The Wall Street Journal
is now a tab. Mario, my longtime Poynter colleague, has helped lead
such conversions at more than 20 newspapers around the globe.

What
does all this mean, especially for American newspapers fretting about
their futures? The answer is so complicated that Mario and I have
decided that it warrants a Poynter event: the World Tabloid Conference,
from March 27 to 29 in St. Petersburg, Fla. At that event, news leaders
from four continents will describe the methods and challenges of the
Big Switch.

Based on our preparation for this conference, here are some preliminary findings:

  1. The United States is not Europe (remember 1776?). Many
    factors that favor the tabloid in places like England and the
    Netherlands don’t work the same way here. Here, home delivery rules,
    not street sales. The role of mass transit differs in our culture.
    Advertisers in America might not want their expensive ads inserted
    clumsily into tabs.
  2. Even newspapers that are unlikely to convert need to pay attention to the new tabloid culture. Newspapers
    now, more than ever, are publishing tabloid sections or creating niche
    publications, especially for younger readers, in tabloid form.
    Broadsheets are also competing more often with free city tabloids, and
    with alternative and ethnic papers in the tabloid format.
  3. Broadsheets need to catch the Tabloid Spirit. Newspapers
    that convert soon discover that everything changes: news judgment,
    content, design, photography, advertising, marketing, story-telling
    forms, writing and audience. Without lowering their standards, news
    organizations need to study and adapt some of the best effects of
    tabloids: portability, tight writing, great headlines, connection with
    youth culture, devotion to sports, a lively editorial voice.
  4. Catching the tab spirit should not require you to make a compact with the devil.
    Catching the tab spirit does not require the broadsheet to shed the
    monk’s robes and don the harlot’s frock. Serious tabloids, including Newsday and The Christian Science Monitor, exist everywhere, sometimes dancing the waltz so that no one can see them jitterbug.

After the March conference, which you are invited to attend, we’ll know more and be able to share more insights on this movement within newspapers worldwide.

My
passion for this topic was born early, as I grew up in the 1950s and
’60s outside of New York City. My father would bring home at least two
city tabloids each day. I loved the cheese and the sleaze — everything
from stories about the murders of “underworld overlords” to blazing
headlines in the tradition of “Headless Man Found in Topless Bar.” The
stories of the city, the lively sports writing, the voices of the
people, the cheesecake photos of starlets — all these enlivened a
young man’s imagination and created what has become a lifelong love of
newspapers.

So convert, I say, convert. Or at least catch the spirit.

Note: As this piece was being prepared for publication, Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times announced its free weekly tabloid for young adults, Tampa Bay Times (aka tbt*), would become a daily tabloid, another example of the fresh vitality of the tabloid.

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