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Two of Australia’s most noted newspapers go tabloid: Will the content follow suit?

Is newsprint size just a size, or does it have an impact on the sort of stories that run within? The research is mixed.


Editor’s note: Today marked a turning point in Australian newspapers: The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age of Melbourne debuted in tabloid form after more than a century as broadsheets. The move of quality dailies to smaller formats is a decade old in Britain, but in its early days in the United States, where the Columbus Dispatch is an early mover. Here, in a piece from The Conversation, Australian journalism academic Andrea Carson looks at the research to see whether format changes portend content shifts.

After 159 and 172 years respectively, the broadsheet tradition has ended for the weekday editions of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald (SMH). Today, both these Fairfax Media mastheads became tabloid-sized newspapers for the first time. The question is: Does size matter in terms of editorial content? Will we, as readers, see a change in the content and selection of stories in these smaller Fairfax newspapers?

According to Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood, the answer is no. He has emphatically argued when explaining the rationale for the size switch (to save costs through the closure of the Tullamarine and Chullora printing plants) that the “compact” versions will contain the same “quality journalism” as when they were broadsheets.

But media scholars are divided on the question of whether newspaper size influences content, and in turn, the role of the press in strengthening democratic accountability.

The Age’s video explaining the changes.

Some, such as British academic Bob Franklin, associate tabloid newspapers with downmarket stories — with an emphasis on crime, celebrity gossip, and sport reporting — to attract a wide audience and to sell more advertising. While this approach satisfies readers as consumers, it might fail to address the needs of readers as citizens.

Bad press

Hywood has not explicitly stated that the company would pursue a “downmarket” approach when The Age and SMH change size, and he was deliberate in using the term “compact” rather than tabloid. One can guess that this is because of the pejorative connotations with British “red top” tabloids, such as the now defunct News of the World, which was responsible for the phone hacking scandal that saw journalists tapping into the voicemail of a murdered child, celebrities, and others, in search of “news.”

Long before this scandal, tabloids were dogged with a reputation for prurience and sensationalism. A London pharmaceutical company coined the term tabloid in the 1880s to describe compressed tablets. Tabloid newspapers were disparagingly seen as easy-to-digest “compressed” news, the domicile of “yellow” journalism and the “penny” press in the nineteenth century.

Academic Brian McNair identified new lows of journalistic sleaze that emerged from British tabloids in the 1970s and 1980s threatened traditional press freedom in Britain and created a “widespread perception” about tabloids. He called this “bonk” journalism, and its cousin “yuck” journalism — graphic coverage of sex, the bizarre, the pathetic, and the tragic.

Size and prejudice

Globally, in 2013, the distinction between the editorial content of the broadsheets compared to tabloids cannot be simply determined by page size.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s video explaining the changes.

Previously, larger format papers were associated with a high income-earning readership and considered a mark of style and authority. This divide blurred when many large format papers converted to “compact” to make it easier for the commuting reader and to ultimately bolster sales. These papers were more accurately termed “elites” referring to their content, rather than their size, to distinguish them. Such mastheads include The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, and The New York Times. Their content shows a commitment to the coverage of politics, foreign news, and investigative reporting.

In Australia, the symbolic and physical difference between the two sized newspapers still largely existed up until today. The broadsheet papers of the SMH, The Age, and The Australian generally attracted readers from a higher socio-economic background, often termed A and B demographics.

A report on the change from ABC’s Lateline.

Of course, there is one notable exception to this finding in Australia and that is the Australian Financial Review. This tabloid-sized national business newspaper also has an AB demographic and an editorial focus on politics and, as my research has found, a strong record for investigative reporting.

Content is king

Looking at the compact newspaper versions published today, it is impossible to make any strong statements about whether size matters for Fairfax. That will only be known with time.

What is known is that globally, over the past five years, about 80 daily newspapers have converted from broadsheet to tabloid in a bid to boost circulation and revenues in response to the political economy of the mass media. But swapping to compact size for circulation gains has also proved not to be sustainable for most beyond a few years.

British and Swedish research has shown press content, including the elites, is moving slowly but inexorably toward “tabloidization.” This means mastheads’ style and content had changed with more emphasis on “soft news,” negative news, celebrity gossip, sex, and crime reporting.

My own research has found the same features in the news pages of Australian broadsheets over time. The premium news pages today have fewer stories, bigger pictures, and more advertising now compared to each decade before since the 1970s. Editors had also shifted their lead-story focus toward crime stories and away from international reporting.

Editor’s picks

Franklin argued that the move toward tabloidization of content has resulted in different editorial priorities, including less investigative reporting. My research has found that Australian broadsheets have produced a significant pool of investigative journalism in Australia, which was more than double the contribution of tabloids.

Significantly, the research showed that when Australian broadsheets became tabloids, their investigative reporting diminished. The three examples were Brisbane’s Courier Mail, the Adelaide Advertiser, and the Newcastle Herald.

In this finding is a cautionary tale for Fairfax: Size does not necessarily shape content (as the Financial Review has so far shown), but the political economy of newspapers demonstrates that it can. Whether it does or doesn’t largely depends on the power and editorial perspective of the editor — one free of the editorial compromises that corporate responsibilities of a masthead can bring.

the-conversationAndrea Carson was once a journalist at The Age, and has submitted a Ph.D. about the future of Australian broadsheets.The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

What to read next
Ken Doctor    Aug. 13, 2014
If newspapers are going to have to survive on their own, the first numbers aren’t encouraging. In southern California, we could see big movement fast.
  • Trevor Kerr

    “While this approach satisfies readers as consumers, it might fail to address the needs of readers as citizens.”

    I could have dropped this onto the original, but, have read This Story Stinks (NYT) and seen the quality of comments at The Conversation. Anyway, cross-fertilisation is a good thing.

    The two Australian newspapers for the corporate set are The Australian and Australian Financial Review, one is broad and the other compact. The rest may break across either side of the left-right divide, but all are competing for “popular” content, whether large format or smaller. I see them as lusting after more problems with which to titivate their readers, and with no real intention of seeking solutions on behalf of citizens. None of them, being in the pockets of advertisers, will go hard on the fat-salt-sugar content of manufactured eatables, so beautifully written up by Michael Moss. None of them will present alcohol consumption as anything but a social necessity with some unfortunate consequences. In short, by default even the “best” of them will shill for powerful corporate interests.

    I’d like to know if *any* major newspaper in the last half-century has, indeed, gone out to publish a solution to *any* problem. It just seems highly unlikely that a publisher would want to kill off a source of tomorrow’s copy.

    As a mental exercise, how would today’s newspapers have covered the story of Ignaz Semmelweis or John Snow? Both “found” solutions to two great killers, but would the media of the day have preferred to retain the chance of scooping stories on more human casualties?

    In short, it seems to me that newspapers no longer try to bring people together (if ever they did), as citizens in common cause, across all divides. Instead, they are complicit in that which drives the politics of rancour and discord. They no longer serve the public, but their own masters.

    On the first front-page of The Age, then. I won’t buy a newspaper that wastes one-third of that valuable real-estate on a photo of a sportsperson. But, I will be watching the thread ‘How supermarkets trick you into buying’ in case it does lead into answers to the eating crisis.

  • ManufacturersMonthly

    SMH has gone waaay downhill. But nothing to do with the size of the paper. They started their search for eyeballs at any cost a while ago.

    Although today, day 1 of “compact” format. And the stories are all shorter, less in depth and the paper is even thinner than before (higer ad-ed ration maybe?)

  • willemr

    They are in a desperate search for eyeballs. The paper is now compact, the stories are shorter and the paper itself is noticeably thin and light.

    However the devaluation of content going towards a less”high brow” audience happened long ago with their website content. This will only continue. But really, its not such a bad thing is it?

    There has been so little focus on Sydney, NSW (our state) and Australia as a whole in these publications as opposed to sensational world news, their value to the citizenry has been devalued for a long time.

    I think the preoccupation on a murder case in South Africa taking up precious space says a lot about what the “average” person cares about, and its nothing to do with being a good citizen anymore.

    But there is now plenty of space for more players in the market, albeit without a dead tree version. But who will take it?