A basic online journal incorporating the thoughts, idiosyncrasies, drama, and occasional petty hatred of Dante Straw.

Friday, November 05, 2004

The Times They Are A-Changin’

The Times, after almost two hundred years of publication, has changed to an exclusively tabloid format. The traditional broadsheet size, unchanged since 1822, was scrapped after sales figures rose in such areas as Scotland, the West Country and Northern Ireland where only the tabloid edition was available. Robert Thomson, the Times’ Editor, penned an editorial welcome to the new edition stressing that although the paper’s size had changed the dedication to ‘fine journalism’ had not. The surprise move, predicted but never acknowledged until the day of the changeover, has elicited some anger from both media commentators and Times readers (please see Private Eye’s Media section for several flaming examples) for whom the main gripe seems to be that it moves the newspaper downmarket. Thomson is obviously trying to combat these fears: the ‘T’ word is not mentioned in his somewhat portentous editorial; instead he refers to the new Times as the ‘compact edition’.

What might anger the Times’ traditional rural readership – surely one of its higher demographics – is that the move to a tabloid, sorry, compact format is a clear concession to metropolitan readers who read their newspapers on the tube or on the commute and don’t have the patience or the room to struggle with an unwieldy broadsheet. The Independent’s format change a year ago made more sense because the bulk of its readership is the urban left, more likely to be crammed into a train carriage or coffee shop whilst reading their paper; The Guardian’s forthcoming switch to a ‘midloid’ format will appease the same readers. The place of the Times however has traditionally been the kitchen tables of middle-class households. Why then this sudden move to please urban readers?

The truth is that The Times has slowly been moving towards a more – shall we say – egilatarian editorial line for years. There are still excellent commentators: Matthew Parris, Anatole Kaletsky and Simon Barnes to name but three. However they vie for space with Polly Filla-like columnist Mary-Ann Sieghart and the execrable Julie Burchill, both of whose pieces are filled with tabloid-style outrage (particularly the latter who, in my opinion, might be sister to the Sun’s Richard Littlejohn). There is still an onus on celebrity columnists such as Jonny Wilkinson who, let’s face it, was hardly hired for his linguistic dexterity. The consequence of the smaller newspaper format means that space will be at a premium – only the ‘top-selling’ stories will get in. This cannot but lead to a populist tabloid-style mentality. A specialist article on Kazakhstanian farming that might take up a quarter-page in broadsheet would take up a single page in a tabloid. Why risk boring the readers? My guess is that what we will see over the coming years is The Times turning into a pro-establishment version of the Daily Mail with attention-grabbing headlines and outraged voices on every page. Stephen Glover has argued that it is this readership that the Times are going after and why not? The Daily Mail is one of the highest-selling papers in the country. The Times’ change therefore makes sense from a business perspective.

The only worry is the impact on the rest of the newspapers: after The Guardian adopts its ‘Berliner’ format the only two remaining daily broadsheets will be the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times. The Telegraph has promised it will not go tabloid and has no doubt reaped the benefit of disgruntled Times traditionalists switching right-wing papers but once there are no alternatives - apart from the FT which caters for a specific market and cannot be considered a rival - who’s to say they will keep that promise? The Times said many a time that they would not switch (and even put a website up to combat rumours to that end) and then did. Telegraph owners the Barclay twins are shrewd businessmen who are unafraid to sacrifice tradition for profit. My prediction is that in five years time the days of struggling with broadsheets will be over.

I’ll leave you with a final word of apology for the title of this post. I just couldn’t help myself.

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