Small Times shows up big differences

To some, the tiny Times is fresh-looking, and handy on the trains. To others, it represents a triumph of vulgarity and corporate arrogance.

Remember when the News of the World was a broadsheet? I don’t think we used the phrase “tabloid values” in those days. Not when the biggest tabloid of the lot was a broadsheet.

And remember the broadsheet Daily Mail, Daily Express, Sun, People and London Evening News? As The Times abandons its broadsheet heritage after 216 years – in favour of what it prefers to call a “compact”, rather than “tabloid” format – it’s worth recalling the last major shift from broadsheet to tabloid.

In the Seventies, there was a concerted switch from large to small pages by the remaining popular and mid-market broadsheets. In those days, size was no differentiator. The terms “popular” and “quality” – rather than tabloid and broadsheet – were used to differentiate the bottom end of the market from the top. Some called them “downmarket”, “mid-market” and “upmarket”, others the “naughties” and the “haughties”.

But then the publishers jumped on the “small is beautiful” bandwagon, in the hope of reviving ailing or sluggish papers. In the case of The Sun, the Mail and the News of the World, it worked. It did little for the fortunes of the Express, The People or the Evening News.

Market researchers conducted learned debates in the hope of persuading (or, in the case of rivals, dissuading) advertisers that “a page is a page is a page” – an argument that has reared its head again now that The Independent and The Times have shrunk. I can’t remember the outcome of those debates, but the argument surely holds good today, whoever won it. Perhaps veterans of the time will remind me.

Either way, the decision by The Times to go compact-only is momentous. It is also brave – in the Yes Minister sense of that word, which implies great risk. Many Times readers resent the switch and the fact that they were not consulted over the removal of the broadsheet. Friends and colleagues queue up to tell me about parents or parents-in-law in various parts of the country who’ve had their broadsheet taken away.

Take this e-mail I received from a BBC listener, one of many anxious to convey their feelings of anger and impotence: “I complained when it went Tabloid in the West Country. I was told that research had shown that the Tabloid version was preferred. I pointed out that I had never been consulted and the best way of consulting would have been to put a questionnaire in the paper. Apparently ‘Marketing’ would call me back. They never did. The website given didn’t allow feedback, it only hosted platitudes.

“Put simply, I have to remind myself that I am not reading the Daily Mail by looking at the masthead. This has been doubly so since they started putting an infantile word game on the back page of T2.”

Another wrote: “Good God! How come the readers haven’t been informed? Pity the poor newsagents getting the invective on Monday morning.”

So, on Monday, I canvassed opinion at a number of local newsagents – and I found a rather different picture. At Turnham Green Tube station in Chiswick, and at other outlets nearby, lots of people were picking up The Times and showing neither surprise nor resentment. Despite The Daily Telegraph proclaiming across the top of its front page “The best in broadsheet journalism”, The Times was comfortably outselling the Telegraph.

“We’ve not had the broadsheet here for several weeks, so we’re used to the smaller version,” said one purchaser.

It’s not a scientific survey and a West London Tube station is not typical of outlying districts, where closely packed trains are less of a factor in newspaper choice. I know of several Times regulars in Surrey and elsewhere who bought the Telegraph on Monday as a direct result of the change.

But, significantly, the compact Times looks a far better paper now than it did almost a year ago when it was first published alongside the broadsheet. It is intriguing to compare it with The Independent, which pioneered the compact switch and has picked up extra sales of more than 20 per cent, as well as numerous awards, including the top prize in Marketing Week‘s Effectiveness Awards.

The Independent deserves that success, and is also to be commended for its Media Weekly section on Mondays, launched in head-on competition with the Media Guardian. It is making full use of the talents of Ray Snoddy, the former Times media editor who for some reason never flourished at Wapping.

But in one way, The Times’ transformation has been the more successful.

These days, The Independent’s ground-breaking single-issue cover story can seem too inflexible and less newsy than The Times’ more traditional front page. The Times has made room for a side bar, listing the main stories, and promotional blurbs for business, features or fashion – selling its wares better.

The jury has been out on The Times’ downsizing. Now it has taken the plunge, it shouldn’t be long before we know whether the move has worked.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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