By Randy Woods
As wave upon wave of smaller formats pop up in Europe and South America, the scene in the United States is oddly tranquil.
With only a handful of exceptions, the traditional broadsheet still reigns supreme among the vast majority of American dailies. In fact, the only conversion from broadsheet to a smaller format in the past several decades occurred in May 2002 at The (San Francisco) Examiner, a free tab its new owners are trying to resuscitate.
At the same time, the tabloid, long derided as the format of trashy supermarket rags, is getting a fresh look in the United States. New, colorful tabloids with eye-catching graphics and short articles, modeled after the successful Metro International, are gaining ground with commuters and younger readers in cities such as New York, Chicago, Dallas and Washington, D.C.
Barely a dent
All of this, however, is barely making a dent in the American broadsheet market.
“Right now, I know of two U.S. papers that might contemplate the move, but only in terms of testing and prototyping,” said Mario Garcia, president and chief executive officer of the Garcia Media Group, a design firm that has helped dozens of papers around the globe convert to smaller formats.
Instead, most U.S. publishers are content to choose less expensive half-measures, such as converting to a narrower, 50-inch web and redesigning their layouts to mimic tabloids’ modular navigation and use of splashy graphics.
Much of the reason for this aversion to full-scale change has to do with well-established advertising traditions, Garcia said.
“All national ads in the U.S. are sold for the broadsheet format,” he said. “At about 21 inches, it is a very large canvas and is good at showing fashion models on runways and new cars.”
Alan Jacobson, president and chief executive officer of Brass Tacks Design, in Norfolk, Va., said research has repeatedly shown readers prefer the tabloid form for its shorter articles, compact size and ease of navigation. But as long as advertisers pay for the large formats to showcase their products, tabloids will never rival broadsheets in the United States, Jacobson said.
“Outside the U.S., much more consideration is given to the reader than the advertiser,” he said. “Europeans tend to have longer, stronger, deeper relationships with their newspapers. In the United Kingdom alone there are something like 20 national newspapers. It’s a much different tradition than in the U.S., where a greater proportion of the cost is paid by advertising.”
In the U.S., Jacobson said, the typical 50-cent charge for a paper pays for only about one-third of production costs. “Advertising does the rest,” he added. “People like to point to readership surveys as agents of change, but nobody’s talking about how it’s the advertisers that really drive it.”
What’s in a name?
U.S. tabloids also have to fight against history.
“There still is a stigma associated with tabloids,” Jacobson said. “The expression ‘tabloid journalism’ is still a negative term in the U.S. Some papers are even trying to get rid of the tabloid label altogether and calling the format a ‘compact newspaper.’”
“Historically, a newspaper had to be a broadsheet, a la The New York Times, for it to be taken seriously,” Garcia said. “Then, about 15 years ago, The Christian Science Monitor switched to a tabloid, and its readers did not think less of their newspaper nor its quality content. But it will be a slow process in the U.S.”
Newspaper designer Roger Black, chairman of Danilo Black in New York, said the taint of the tabloid is largely a myth.
“The only stigma remains in the minds of those in the newsroom,” he said. “Look at Europe. Look at Le Monde, El Pais, La Repubblica. Those are some of the most respected papers in the world, and they are all tabloids, or at least look like tabloids. (Editor’s note: Le Monde is produced in the slightly smaller Berliner format, more common in Europe.) With maybe the exception of Al D’a in Dallas, no one in the U.S. has started a new broadsheet daily.”
The Metro dailies could change consumers’ and advertisers’ attitudes, Black said. “They’re not trying to look down-market. They target the commuters and aim for a suburban mentality.”
Re-examining the tabloid
The Examiner might be the best case gauging the viability of tabloids in the U.S.
The venerable daily, which all but died from a combination of benign neglect and the constraints placed upon it through its JOA pact with the rival San Francisco Chronicle, launched a tabloid version in May 2002, following a four-month project led by Garcia Media.
While some critics said the decision to go to free was yet another death knell for The Examiner, “we found just the opposite,” Managing Editor Jim Pimintel said. “In November 2003, we had 72,000 circulation and today it stands at about 95,000. There’s no question the increase is related to the redesign. As a tabloid, it has a catchier look and feel and was a nice change from the monotony of the broadsheet. The readers found out pretty quickly that we’re not into sensational journalism.”
The Columbia Missourian, meantime, is preparing to roll out a tab version of its Sunday edition this fall, said Tom Warhover, the newspaper’s executive editor.
The paper, a six-times-per-week, 7,000-subscriber community publication, affiliated with the University of Missouri’s school of journalism, picked Sunday because it has the smallest circulation, he said.
“We were keenly watching what was happening with tabloids in the U.K. and we set it up on a Metro format,” Warhover said. “We chose Sunday because it is traditionally our weakest day, with just 4,800 circulation. We’re at a competitive disadvantage in that readers can get delivery of eight different daily papers in our area. We wanted to stand out from the crowd a bit.”
Still, after printing two trial tab editions in spring 2004, the Missourian received mixed reactions from readers. “The overarching sentiment, though, was that they didn’t like it and they didn’t hate it, but they didn’t mind if we tried it out,” Warhover said.
Being affiliated with the university, Warhover said he feels the need to take risks on behalf of the industry.
“We have the brainpower of 80 faculty members and a pool of 130 reporters we can access through the j-school,” he said.
“Without that, I might not have had the courage to consider a tabloid change. In this environment, it makes it easier to try some radical stuff.”
With advertisers and readers sometimes at cross-purposes with tabloids, what will the daily of the future look like in the U.S.?
Common wisdom says the trend of shorter, 50-inch webs will rule the day and the younger market will continue to be targeted. But is this a wise path?
While the popular “youth tabloids,” such as the seven weeklies Gannett has launched, may seem like a good short-term strategy, Black said he wonders if they are the right audience to covet.
“The problem with the youth tabloids is that they are aimed at people who don’t read newspapers,” he said. “Providing short capsules of information is fine, but for people who still want the full story, with a setup, middle and ending, you should still provide some kind of narrative. Over the long-term you have to worry about attracting those who are literate and interested.”
The Los Angeles Times, for example, “figured the smarter ploy was to look for those who do read the papers and try to get more market penetration from them,” Black said. “They went the other direction and switched their famous Calendar section from tabloid to broadsheet, mostly to compete with The New York Times, and did very well.”
Pimintel said there are more tabloids to come as advertisers get used to smaller ad sizes. “With tabloids, you can walk down the street with the paper open and still look right at the ads,” he said.
Until the number of converted advertisers reach critical mass, Ron Reason, Garcia Media’s creative director, said U.S. tabloids will continue to prosper mainly as niche publications and special editions.
“I think for this to catch on with daily mainstream publishers who have long been broadsheet, there will have to be a phenomenal cost savings involved,” he says. “This was the motivator for the reduction to the 50-inch web. It was never, as many claimed in clever promotional campaigns, because readers felt it was a handier width to hold, fold and navigate.”
A few long-established tabloids, such as Newsday in Long Island, N.Y., and the Chicago Sun-Times, are careful to emulate some aspects of their broadsheet competitors, as well, he said, by providing printed pullout sections and running some of the supplements as broadsheets, “so they are more easily distinguished from the tabloid mother ship.”
Garcia said he believes other types of smaller formats, such as the “old tabloid” Berliner or the 8-by-11-inch A4, may also have a place in U.S. newspapers in the future.
“Newspapers will soon hit the wall,” he said. “Anyone who follows the business with any clarity knows that there has been a flattening of growth. Papers can survive if they rethink themselves.”
Original Dead Link: http://www.newsandtech.com/issues/2004/11-04/ifra/11-04_broadsheets.htm