Promising signs for the tiny Times

By common consent, Robert Thomson, editor of The Times these past two-and-a-half years, is an enigmatic fellow. Decided, cerebral, yes; but not one to let his intentions see the light of day too early. Sometimes, this can have unfortunate repercussions: one such was the precipitate launch of the ‘full monty’ compact this week. Even the staff were in the dark until last Friday.

It didn’t help that Thomson had previously taken refuge in a thicket of denial. Misleading The Daily Telegraph – in a tight, competitive newspaper market – may be seen as a sacred duty in the Murdoch camp. Misleading fellow journalists over what is a very mediagenic story is, as we know, quite another matter.

And yet the substance of Thomson’s decision was surely correct. Every day that it was deferred would have made The Times and its editor look increasingly indecisive and weak. Just as seriously, it was becoming colossally expensive to print a broadsheet and compact version of The Times in tandem.

As it is, the compact version seems well-set to succeed. This optimistic assessment is drawn from a number of quarters. First, wherever The Times has experimented with the compact version, notably on the Celtic fringe, it has been rewarded with increased circulation. Overall, circulation rose nearly five per cent in the year to September 30, which surely suggests the figures are even more flattering in the area of the regional experiment. This in a national market whose salient trend is decline.

Ah, you will object: good but not that good. What about The Independent, which showed the courage of its convictions much earlier and has been rewarded with the best sales figures in the industry: a jump of nearly 22 per cent in the same period?

Well, The Independent’s performance is better, no doubt about that. It, and its editor Simon Kelner, have deservedly won awards (not least the Grand Prix of our own Effectiveness Awards). But it would be a mistake to regard the two cases as entirely symmetrical. In a word, The Times has a lot more to lose if it gets its calculations wrong.

The readership issue is obvious. At somewhat shy of 700,000, The Times’ circulation lies closer to that of the Telegraph than it does to The Independent’s 265,000. There are other Telegraph affinities, too. Whereas a compact format might be calculated to suit the younger age-profile of the broadsheet Indy, The Times shares with the Telegraph the burden of many older readers fiercely wedded to their broadsheet. It is likely, even now, that some of these will migrate to the Telegraph. A parallel scenario between the Indy and The Guardian is not nearly so compelling.

To compound this, there are considerable problems – which persist – in persuading advertisers to accept at full measure the downsized Times. More sections, more display revenue mean more serious negotiating problems: so long as The Guardian and the Telegraph remain robustly broadsheet, advertisers can plausibly maintain that a tabloid Times is not a like-for-like substitute for its broadsheet antecedent. The more – shall we say? – streamlined Indy has to an extent bucked this loss of advertising revenue through a phenomenal circulation boost. The Times, with its more cautious approach to readers, cannot expect to cash the same dividend, at least not immediately.

But Thomson has done his research thoroughly and evolved, over the year of experiment, a compact design with more gravitas. Now is definitely the time for his Leap into the Dark.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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