Grey area for a tabloid Torygraph

Whatever plans may have been shaping in the Barclay brothers’ minds as they assess the flaws of their tarnished &£665m prize, are likely to have undergone a change of priority, thanks to the disclosure of some interesting industry news this week.

It appears that The Guardian (a subject normally remote from the day-to-day interests of Telegraph executives) has definitely decided to go “compact”. Not just The Guardian either, but its sister Sunday publication the Observer as well. Nor will there be any shilly-shallying with regional broadsheet variants and hybrid editions. The transformation will be complete, backed by a &£50m investment: only the date, in early 2006, remains a little vague.

This leaves the Telegraph Group – as the only publisher of solus broadsheet national newspapers now remaining – exposed to change, and at a time when the accompanying upheaval can scarcely be less welcome. Yet, whatever the huffing and puffing, the Telegraph itself must shortly follow suit.

We might wonder how this compact revolution, much profounder in its impact on the quality market than the price war of a few years ago, came about so swiftly. All the more so since its benefits, both to readers and advertisers, are highly controversial.

From a purely technical viewpoint, there is no advantage in advertisers switching to compact. Smaller page size, muddle over accommodating existing hybrid formats and rows over ratecards seem the most likely immediate effects. To focus too narrowly on technicalities however, would be to deny the galvanising impact of an innovation in a newspaper market marked by long-term decline. Advertisers and media buyers will have been delighted by the palpable surge in readers who have switched to The Independent, which pioneered the compact format. They may be more confused by the mixed picture emerging at Times Newspapers, but sales of The Times have at least ceased to sag; and they cannot doubt that, in the longer term, the Murdoch press will throw enough money at the compact revolution to make it work.

Which must be pretty much where Guardian Media Group’s thinking comes in. While circulation of the Indy increased 14 per cent in the six months to May, after jettisoning the broadsheet format, sales of The Guardian fell by more than six per cent. If there were any cheaper way of remedying this situation, it’s a certainty that GMG would have seized it eagerly.

Still, for all the Canute-like inevitability of coming change, the Telegraph rearguard are probably right to be sceptical about it. First, while innovation that grips readers’ imagination is to be welcomed, it may not translate into sustainable circulation increases down the line, after the novelty wears off. Secondly, the Telegraph titles must be especially careful of their peculiar reader demographic. Pandering to new, youthful recruits is all very well, but when your typical reader is AB and 56 years old (rather than 43 at the Times), you will need to be especially sensitive to accusations of dumbing down into a “tabloid”. Let’s not forget one often overlooked feature about Telegraph readers: there are a lot more older people about these days, living longer – and spending more money.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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