Bye, Bye Broadsheet?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE NEWSPAPER BUSINESS    
From AJR,   June/July 2005

Bye, Bye Broadsheet?   

Papers’ newest attempt to attract readers is tabloid-shaped.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     


The august Times of London is now a tabloid. Knight Ridder says it may experiment with going tabloid in some of its larger markets. The Chicago Tribune says converting to tabloid size is not out of the question.

In their quest to shore up fading daily circulation, newspapers appear ready to try anything, including chucking the broadsheet format that has long been the mark of serious print journalism. Even the Wall Street Journal, among the most serious of newspapers, will soon adopt a tabloid format for its European and Asian versions.

Although there have always been tabloids of serious intent (Newsday being a notable example), the public image of tabloid journalism calls to mind sensationalism with lots of blood and gore and often something other than "family-friendly" journalism.

And while tabloid talk is most prevalent regarding big-city markets, tabloidism is spreading as well to dailies in small cities such as Jersey City, New Jersey.

Before getting into the rationale for this flirtation with downsizing, it is worth exploring the checkered history of tabloids through the ages.

Most newspapers were small until cheap, plentiful newsprint became available in the mid-19th century and fostered the growth of broadsheet newspapers. After that, tabloids were relatively rare. A notable exception, the New York Daily Graphic, was founded in 1873.

Tabloids as a recognizable phenomenon, a style of journalism, really began in 1919 with the creation of New York's Illustrated Daily News (soon shortened to Daily News), which from the start featured its own beauty contest with photographs of what it called "..NEW YORK'S MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRLS EVERY MORNING..." By 1924, the contest and the paper's sensationalist treatment of crime and celebrities, accompanied by copious photographs, had made the Daily News, with a circulation of 750,000, the largest newspaper in the nation.

Hearst Newspapers countered with its tabloid New York Daily Mirror in 1924, and the New York Evening Graphic, with a sensationalist bent, was invented by Bernarr MacFadden. The battle was on. The publisher of one New York broadsheet described it all as "gutter journalism."

Sensationalism did not begin with New York's tabloids. The "yellow journalism" of the late 19th century spread to many broadsheets for a time, and the Denver Post, under Harry Tammen and Fred Bonfils, raised sensationalism to irresponsible levels in the early decades of the 20th century.

But it was the tabloids of New York that put a stamp on tabloid journalism, even though many other tabs were not sensationalist. And even the tabloids were pushed into occasional serious journalism by the stark poverty of the Great Depression. By the early 1960s, the sensationalist tabs were gone, partially killed off by television, which could do blood and gore better and faster than newspapers.

Today, any trend toward adopting a tabloid format is not about a style of journalism but an effort to make newspapers more convenient and attractive for readers, especially younger ones. For it is the failure of young people to take up newspaper reading in anywhere near the numbers of earlier generations that is the basic cause of newspapers' circulation woes.

Although publishers doubtless will deny that switching to a tabloid format will involve any diminution of a newspaper's journalism, it appears inevitable that the smaller format will bring with it greater emphasis on shorter stories. This would not be entirely a bad thing.

What might not be wholly a good thing is the reaction of advertisers. Major advertisers--those that buy big display advertisements--have generally preferred broadsheets to tabloids because, in their view, they offer bigger, more attractive presentations. Indeed, some tabloids regularly feature broadsheet inserts for just that reason. So going to smaller pages may not please all advertisers.

Of more import will be the impact on advertising rates. Is a column inch in a tabloid worth as much as an inch in a broadsheet? Should a full page in a tabloid cost as much as a full page in a broadsheet? Newspapers and advertisers likely will have different answers to these questions.

In Europe, where the trend to tabloids has some history, discounts from broadsheet advertising rates of more than 20 percent were common. Increased circulation at some papers eventually brought enough incremental revenue from sales of the papers and higher advertising rates to replace what had been lost.

But the circulation gains were not great in every instance, which suggests that going tabloid may not turn out to be a panacea. The long-term problem of persuading the young that they should read newspapers, whether tabloid or broadsheet, will remain.

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