London 'Independent' Says Format Change 'Saved the Paper'

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LONDON ( -- The U.S. national newspapers -- The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today -- are broadsheets, in keeping with a tradition that a broadsheet connotes seriousness, while a tabloid is sensational. That view was long held here in the U.K. as well, but this past year several “serious” newspapers here switched over to tabloid format and found their circulation soared.
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'Independent' first
The Independent was first, followed by The Times. The Wall Street Journal’s European and Asian editions have followed suit. The Guardian recently launched in a “Berliner” format, which is a smaller than a broadsheet but still bigger than a tabloid.

The dailies recorded a significant rise in circulation following the format changes. David Greene, The Independent’s circulation and marketing director, went as far as to say the change “saved the paper."

In October, for example, circulation at the The Independent was up 1.71% from the previous month to 267,037 -- a 0.4% rise year-on-year. Similarly, The Times was up 0.58% to 703,492 for the month and 7.16% up year-on-year. Following its September relaunch, The Guardian sold 403,296 copies a day in October -- in August it was selling 341,968.

Broadsheet circulation down
Meanwhile The Telegraph -- the only paper in the U.K. to hang on to its broadsheet format -- was down 0.29% in October to 901,667 copies despite a major relaunch that month. Year-on-year the publication was down 0.2%.

The original tabloids, by contrast, are suffering a sales slump. In October, The Daily Mirror was down 3.28%, The Sun was off 2.3% and The Daily Mail was down 0.97% from the previous month.

In the U.K. newspaper publishers who have adopted the new format prefer the word “compact” to “tabloid," fearing there is still a downmarket stigma attached to tabloids. “Quality used to be defined by size,” Mr. Greene said. “People still use the term 'tabloid' as a dig.”

The Independent was the first British broadsheet to go tabloid, in September 2003. “Our bravery was contained,” said Mr. Greene, because the paper only did it in London to start with. “We had to do something. Our research showed us that younger readers and commuters find broadsheets masculine, outdated, big and unwieldy.”

Shape of a younger audience
“If you look at everything else around us -- chocolate, toothpaste -- it comes in various shapes and sizes for consumer use. The shape brings in a younger audience,” he added.

Although there was a “modest drop” in advertising revenue immediately after the relaunch, Mr. Greene claimed that “we more than compensated this year.” The costs of relaunching formats were substantial: $211 million for The Guardian, $53 million for The Times and $21 million for The Independent.

The Wall Street Journal Europe has not released its circulation figures yet, but the paper has revealed that advertising linage increased by 41% (and 16% in the Asia edition) in November, following the relaunch in mid-October. When the paper ran the same ads in pre- and post-relaunch editions, recall increased from 65% to 88%, respectively.

Rebirth of the tabloid
Penny Abernathy, senior VP-international and development at the WSJ, said, “We thought about where readers are going to be in five years’ time. We looked around the world and we saw that European newspapers are ahead. The rebirth of the tabloid is driven by the way people use computers and cellphones -- they are used to a small-sized screen and short briefs.”

These are long-term investments by proprietors convinced that a more convenient format is the future of newspapers. Ms. Abernathy cites a Poynter Institute study showing that tabloids are read differently from broadsheets. Because they don’t get battered on first reading, consumers turn to tabloid-formatted papers for news in the morning and then keep hold of them during the day, returning for a more leisurely look at analysis and insight in the evening.

Higher ad recognition
The same study also indicated via eye-tracking that ads in tabloids get 50% more recognition than in broadsheets, because the eye picks up more than it does on a broadsheet, which people tend to fold. Page dominance rather than size of ad determines recall.

“We expect an upturn in readership,” Ms. Abernathy said. She hinted that the WSJ might consider making the move to tabloid in the U.S. “I’ve never seen a newspaper redesigned in the U.S. without asking to see a tabloid form,” she said. “We have designed a paper for where things are moving.”

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