It is one week since the Fairfax broadsheets – The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age - changed their format to what they call "compact". What is the verdict so far?
First, there is confusion in the public mind about the difference between "compact" and "tabloid". I've done several radio interviews this week about the changeover, and in both cases, I've been asked about use of the term "cough" tabloid "snigger". David Rowe's Tabloid Turn last Tuesday canvasses some of these issues.
Arguably, apart from the Truth newspapers (1890-1995), whose story is told in Sandra Hall's rollicking book Tabloid Man, Australia has never had tabloid newspapers. There is nothing in Australian journalism to compare with the likes of the Rupert Murdoch owned London Sun, and the now-defunct The News of the World. Anyone who doubts this should read the now classic tale of the London tabloids Stick It up Your Punter by Peter Chippindale, and Chris Horrie.
So the first question to ask is: Why are Fairfax changing format? The simple reason is that they no longer have the famed "rivers of gold" of display and classified advertising for real estate, cars, jobs, and ahem, personal services of the sort found in King's Cross, to justify the broadsheet format. Strategically the Fairfax board dropped the ball when former McKinsey consultant, some time competition policy czar, and now UNSW vice-chancellor Fred Hilmer was CEO (1998-2005). Now, under real newspaperman Greg Hywood, they recognise that the digital revolution is as significant as the industrial revolution and the neolithic revolution. They no longer have, or need, the space for extensive advertising; therefore the news output is smaller, in both format and volume. This actually doesn't matter because the associated online news sites can carry all the content that is spiked from the newsprint edition.
Like mediaeval monks in scriptoria caught unaware by the invention of movable type by Gutenberg, newspaper journalists have laboured on with declining circulations. Both The Age and The Herald suffered double digit declines in print circulation in the 12 months ending 31 December 2012, on both their Monday to Friday and Saturday editions. The Herald lost 14.5% and 13.3% Monday to Friday and Saturday respectively; The Age lost 14.5% and 13.4% Monday to Friday and Saturday respectively, and The Sunday Age declining by 14%. Both the Herald and The Age are sitting at just under 160,000 Monday to Friday, compared to just over 120,000 for The Australian.
In Queensland, Rupert Murdoch's Courier-Mail (circulation 185,000) went compact seven years ago, although like the Herald and The Age last week, its production editors still struggle with representing broadsheet concepts of news in a tabloid format. So the real question about the Fairfax broadsheets is: What took them so long?
We have been told, rather breathlessly, that neuro-imaging and eyeball tracking techniques has been used in revitalising the content and design of the Fairfax compacts. A technique which has been used in advertising for some time now, neuro-marketing is a result of the developments in neuro-imaging from the 1990s, and will shortly be commonplace in advertising and marketing, including in political advertising and public health campaigns.
However, brain waves aside, on the evidence of the past week, Fairfax production editors are struggling to optimise use of the compact format. Perhaps they have deliberately stayed away from the use of san serif type fonts, traditionally associated with tabloid newspapers. But on page 1 of the Sydney Morning Herald last Monday (the first day of the new format) to run a colour photograph of runners silhouetted against a sunrise with the label in a serif font: "A new dawn", as the main graphic, is at best unimaginative, and at worst, quite twee. For a start, I have always taught that every headline should contain a verb, and that any headline which doesn't is merely a label.
As one who edited compact format newspapers back in the early 1980s, I think the production editors find it difficult to cope with the resizing of the pages; the pages appear over busy, with not enough white space and insufficient pointers. As a regular reader of the broadsheet Sydney Morning Herald I struggled to find my way through the compact edition.
However, the real issue is not the shape of the paper the news is printed on, but the brand of the news provider. When Gina Rinehart was snapping at the heels of the Fairfax board, Opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull made the sage observation that the type of journalism produced by the Fairfax broadsheets was central to their brand, and that to change that journalistic orientation, perceived to be that of a tertiary educated, soft left, inner city, bicycle riding, basket weaving, latte-sipping, Moscato quaffing demographic, was to trash the brand.
Up here in the subtropics, Fairfax has, since 2007, been running an experiment which points to their future. It's an online news site with no printed output. It's called The Brisbane Times and with eight journalists, and an editorial and production staff of 10, including one with sole responsibility for social media, it is competitive with the behemoth of Bowen Hills. Brisbane Times now has over half a million unique browsers each month, with a spike to 3/4 of a million during the 2010 floods. The journalists file across all platforms text, sound and vision; and sub editors are now news producers (a term which comes from television). Just as News Ltd is planning device directed editions - a print edition, a free web edition, a pay wall web edition, an iPad edition and a mobile edition, Fairfax too is said to be planning a late-night iPad edition.
This reflects not only the fact that 25% of iPad readership takes place in bed, but that the 24 hour news cycle means that news consumers have different news consumption demands, interests, and preferences at different times of the day. So what sort of news do people want first thing in the morning, at lunchtime, and before bed, and how are each of these preferences different?
My guess is the future of Fairfax is neither compact nor tabloid; it is online news, probably from behind a pay wall, delivered to desktops, tablets and mobiles. Anywhere, anytime.