The Biz: U.K. broadsheets try on tabloid size

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In one of the U.K. media's most dramatic stories, broadsheet newspapers are trying to reverse the industry's decline in readership by transforming themselves into half-the-size tabloids. Two of the four main broadsheets, The Times and The Independent, started rolling out tabloid editions in late 2003 that have led to a quick and dramatic spurt in sales. A third, the Daily Telegraph, may follow suit.

The new tabloid versions have the same cover price, advertising and content, spread over twice as many smaller pages.

David Greene, the circulation and marketing director of The Independent, owned by Independent News & Media and the smallest U.K. national paper with January 2004 circulation of 212,927, says sales are up between 40% and 50% in areas where the tabloid is available.

News Corp.'s The Times, which started from a stronger base than The Independent, claims a 15% increase where the compact edition is on sale.

Paul Hayes, the general manager of Times Newspapers, says, "This is a dramatic increase. Historically there has been nothing like it. In the last three years all our marketing efforts have achieved only flat or 1% growth."

quality issue

The U.K. newspaper market is divided among the smaller-circulation "quality" broadsheets and the more popular tabloids that sell up to 3.4 million daily for News Corp.'s The Sun and typically feature lurid stories and topless women. The broadsheets are hoping that their own tabloid-size editions-which they dub "compacts" to avoid the downmarket connotation of tabloids-will appeal to new readers and to commuters desperate to read on crowded public transport.

"They tend to be metropolitan young men and women, who are increasingly difficult to reach for advertisers," Hayes says. "On tubes and buses, commuters have little space for broadsheet dimensions."

The success of the tabloid commuter freesheet Metro, launched in 1999, has been a major catalyst to downsize. "Metro introduced a new audience to papers, especially women and younger people," Greene says.

Creating and printing in two sizes does cost more. At The Independent, Greene considers it part of the marketing budget, including the money to hire 150 people to "educate" and "cajole" the newsstand vendors into allowing extra shelf space for the two editions. "Instead of propping up sales, we are investing in rolling out the compact," he says.

As with all innovations, there are teething problems. A debate is on over the relative merits of a full-page tabloid ad compared to a half-page broadsheet ad. It is easy to flick straight past a full-page tabloid ad, but if the same ad appears as a half-page in a broadsheet, the broadsheet version may have more impact and therefore more value.

Vanessa Clifford, a managing partner at WPP Group's MindShare, London, says, "We commend and support the innovation but we won't be blind stupid. There is a lot of debate about things like ratios of cost, about whether a tabloid page is as impactful as a broadsheet, and the quality of the circulation growth."

Given the cost of creating two different-size editions, many suspect the broadsheets will eventually print only a tabloid edition.

Of the other two London broadsheet dailies, The Guardian has considered and rejected the tabloid option, while the Daily Telegraph is considering it. Editorial Director Kim Fletcher says, "It's no secret that we have been looking at a tabloid Daily Telegraph-and very beautiful it is too."

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