Nigel Jarrett reflects on the trend to turn from broadsheet to tabloid in the week that saw the Guardian the latest to make the change.
Tabloid journalism is an expression connoting both form and content when applied to printed newspapers. Leaving aside for a moment its pejorative overtone (one not recognised by its readers, who are counted in millions even today), it is journalism shaped not only by consumer expectation but also by space: those boundaries that circumscribe what goes on the page and dictate the relationship between words and pictures. All of Wales’s daily newspapers are now tabloid, having changed from a broadsheet format of vertical pages about 55 centimetres in length. The newspapers themselves might offer a more complicated argument, but the reason for ‘going tabloid’ was in every case economic; circulations were falling and advertising revenues needed to be buttressed. Broadsheet was considered old-fashioned. So much for the position not all that long ago.
Such aesthetic-commercial considerations, of course, became almost redundant with the development of websites. Newspapers found themselves in a multiple quandary involving options for advertisers, reader acceptance, and above all whether or not a newspaper website made the printed version redundant. The arguments continue. The theory was that, being considered out-moded, broadsheet papers appealed to older readers who were slowly dying off. It was impossible to attract younger ones, really younger, unless appearances changed. Such an idea, typical of the industry’s often skewed thinking, scarcely took account of youth’s almost total indifference to buying and reading newspapers whatever their shape, certainly outside what was then Fleet Street. They snaffled a copy if they were looking for a job, a car, accommodation, or the sports results. Newspaper company failures, increasingly inherited by conglomerates, reflect an historical contempt for readers that incorporated a lack of knowledge of who they were or what their reading habits might be. The South Wales Argus, for example, was amazed a couple of decades ago to discover from a Henley Forecasting survey of its readership that in the Valleys one person in the street bought the paper before the rest borrowed it in turn. That the finding was considered apocryphal only went to show how out of touch managements were, even to the practice of obtaining regular feedback from third parties. Maybe the interviewees were kidding; but they didn’t know that either.
Although the Welsh dailies, all based in the south – Western Mail, South Wales Echo, South Wales Evening Post, and South Wales Argus – are now tabloid, the success of the Liverpool Daily Post, another tabloid, in encroaching on the upper half of Wales and eventually recording higher circulations than any them is tempered only by the long-term decline all five share. Even based on figures for the past four years, the graph of their losses resembles an evening stroll to oblivion. None will recover as print journals, and it remains to be seen which of them decides that their websites are so successful that they can safely close down their printing halls. Newspapers went through a period of making extravagant claims for their sites, possibly knowing that most advertisers are too uninformed to question the size of the market they are paying to access. It’s a murky, unscientific area. Some of the science might be applied to preventing the websites from jumping here, there and everywhere as those irritating cookies hop into place. It puts readers off.
Then there’s the question of reader expectation of what a tabloid newspaper entails. None of the Welsh evening dailies – Echo, Argus, Evening Post – took the trouble to discover what papers their readers bought in the morning. If the answer was tabloid, especially ‘red top’ tabloid, there was a problem. Were they losing readers (and it’s been happening since the heady days of the 1960s) because they were not reflecting the mode and manner of the morning purchase? If so, it took them all an inordinately long time to change shape. Then the evening papers compounded the problem by putting themselves on sale in the morning alongside all the others. As one reader put it, ‘I want my Daily Express in the morning and my Evening Post in the bloody evening!’ The Post had the excuse that it was forced to print at a distance overnight so was thus ready for next mroning sale. Compete with the nationals? How daft can you get? The joke in Cardiff was that one either bought the Western Mail in the morning or the Echo in the evening; never both. In pre-tabloid days, journalists were often expected to work for the two publications where the geographical area of interest overlapped. But that’s another story – a newspaper’s own story. (Another joke: in its broadsheet days, the North Wales editions of the Western Mail were driven from Thomson House in Cardiff to the hinterlands in the boot of a Ford Zephyr, the car’s name never guaranteeing an assisted passage. That story might have been apocryphal, like a lot else that has at least a mote of truth.) There’s little evidence, despite what these newspapers might say, that changing to tabloid made more money or garnered more readers, the very reason for the move in the first place. In any case, such changes have come too late in Wales, and it’s now a question of identifying in the look of the print versions how much attention is being devoted to them.
Ah, the appearance. Newspaper design became important when newspapers were at their zenith. Under the influence of people such as the typographer and designer Allen Hutt, of the Daily Worker, the editor Hugh Cudlipp, of the Daily Mirror, and the editor (now Sir) Harold Evans, of the Sunday Times, newsworthiness was reflected in typographical treatment as well as positioning and length. The Welsh tabloids, and this is a personal opinion, have never bothered to understand the arcana and bravura of great tabloid design. It’s a skill. There’s also no reason why a ‘serious’ newspaper – as opposed to a trivial, titillating one already downsized, should not go tabloid. Let’s discount whether or not a newspaper is calm, rational and intelligent or plugged to the rafters with unmitigated tripe and prejudice. We are talking design; we are talking medium, not message. People who despise tabloids, for good reason, miss the often sheer éclat of their design, the way stories are matched by their presentation. Sadly, in the Welsh dailies, there’s evidence of designers learning ‘on the job’ and picking up bad habits, or just habits. This may be a consequence of falling staff numbers, contempt for traditional skills and investment, and the ever-wobbly attitudes to the print-or-digital question. If you think your printed version has a limited life, you aren’t going to be much interested in its quality as the best-looking product you can devise. If it’s on the way out, what it looks like is pretty much immaterial.
As for the new tabloid Guardian (the national newspaper), its first front page, where it might have made a mark, was depressingly dull. A neo-antique fount for the masthead, a useless main picture, and a lack of colour seemed to betoken the ills of the industry, which in many places seems directionless. It needed some ‘red top’ pzazz as a statement of intent. Some of the inside was OK, but in total it seemed a stage in decline, from broadsheet, to slightly pretentious ‘Berliner’, to tabloid. Like its downhill-rolling Welsh cousins, the Guardian’s shape is no longer meaningful in any terms. In the paper’s buzzing digital hub, the printed paper must seem like a naggingly persistent irrelevance. But try telling that to the Scott Trust, who own and run the organisation. The Welsh dailies trying to stop their websites behaving like performing fleas as readers attempt access know there are different problems to address if news-gathering and the sale of news are to survive.
Nigel Jarrett is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review. He is a poet, novelist, and story writer. His latest collection of stories, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published last year. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He also writes and reviews for Jazz Journal. Next year sees the publication of his short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy.