Rusbridger: why I did it the Berliner way

By Dominic Ponsford

Alan Rusbridger is gambling £80m of his employers’ cash, his own job
and those of his staff and the future of a 184- year-old liberal
institution on changing The Guardian to a format never before used by a
UK national.

That must have been a tough call.

“It’s a big thing,” Rusbridger admits.

But
he adds: “Staying broadsheet wasn’t an option because you can see what
happens to the circulation – this is going to face The Daily Telegraph
next.

It’s apparent that broadsheets now look old-fashioned and are seen as cumbersome and masculine.”

The
launch of the mini-Indy in September 2003 and then the tiny Times six
weeks later saw their circulations soar – at the expense of The
Guardian, which is languishing at a 27-year low.

The dilemma that
faced The Guardian at the tail end of that year was whether to follow
The Independent and The Times into tabloid territory.

Rusbridger
admits being tempted enough to commission two tabloid dummies, which
played well in consumer research. But they were less popular with the
staff who he estimates were around 60-40 against such a move.

“It
was a question of whether to move quickly into tabloid, with all the
logistical problems that would have posed for us in terms of 250-page
papers, when the financials are not great in terms of the advertising
equation.

“There were lots of down sides for turning tabloid,
although the attraction was that if we had moved very quickly we would
have choked off a lot of The Independent growth in the same way that
The Times did.

“Set against that was the idea of doing something
much bolder, something we felt much more comfortable with in the
tradition of the paper, and which was a quantum leap forward
technologically. When you sit down and look at it in reverse, it’s a
more obvious decision than perhaps it seemed at the time. Which is not
to say we haven’t had a lot of angst-ridden moments along the way.”

The
process, which led to next Monday’s format change, began in August 2003
(Rusbridger says he has a board minute to prove it) – a month before
The Independent launched its tabloid version within the M25.

Returning
from holiday brandishing a copy of a Berliner-size La Repubblica to The
Guardian board, Rusbridger says it was patiently explained to him that
such a move would require new presses – a three-year project.

He
believes the editors of The Times, Financial Times and The Independent
have all looked into a Berliner move as well, but said no for the same
reason: “You buck against this thing that is a very nice size but you
can’t do it.”

Stuck between a tabloid rock and a broadsheet hard
place, Rusbridger was thrown a lifeline when he called in a man he
describes as the “Red Adair of the printing world” – Chicago-based
consultant Jack Ferguson.

“We said that the problem is that
everyone says it’s going to take three years to go down the Berliner
route and that’s why no-one’s done it. He said, ‘let’s see how well we
can beat that’.”

Man Roland has “never built presses quicker” and they arrived in January.

One
went to a spare building at The Guardian’s own print site in Trafford
Park, Manchester, while the other two have been installed at a vacant
shed that is adapted to house them at Newsfax in East London.

The
redesign of the paper began “in earnest” in February, with a team of up
to 30 working for six months, led by creative director Mark Porter and
deputy editor Paul Johnson.

As of last Friday, The Guardian team had produced five dummies in real time that were sent to the new print sites.

While
£80m for a relaunch sounds like a lot of cash, Rusbridger says it was
not a huge amount considering that the paper would have had to buy new
presses in a few years anyway.

Leaving the current printing deal
at West Ferry in East London three years early will incur a penalty,
but Rusbridger says the commercial benefits of full-colour printing
mean it will balance out over 15 years.

The 30 per cent premium
currently charged for colour adverts was undoubtedly the main driver
behind having colour presses – but it is the extent to which full
colour has changed the presentation of news, and particularly
photographs, that seems to excite Rusbridger the most.

“I hadn’t
predicted how that would make a paper that has sometimes been seen as
forbidding look,” he says. “The use of so much colour has produced a
paper that’s much more approachable, and much more difficult to
pigeonhole in a market. It’s much more vibrant.”

Rusbridger
refuses to be drawn on what the relaunch will do to sales of The
Guardian – historically rock-solid at around the 400,000 mark, but now
languishing at 358,345 – other than to predict that they will go up.

“The
whole newspaper world is in such a funny state at the moment. The Times
could suddenly go back down to 10p just to cause mischief, or it could
spend £20m on DVDs.

“The internet could take off in a spectacular way. There’s so many variables in this business.”

But,
he insists: “Anyone who’s ever bought a Guardian will still buy one –
it’s a massive opportunity for reassessment and sampling. I hope what
will happen is that this idea of the Guardian as an impregnable
fortress… if we can break that down and people can see a paper that’s
much more colourful and approachable, then I think that will win us new
friends.”

Rusbridger admits that the long wait for the new
presses to come online has been a frustrating period, as sales have
drifted down in the face of competition from the new upmarket tabloids.

But the two-year wait for a response to The Independent’s tabloid has had its advantages, he says.

The Guardian has taken time to win the advertising community over to the new format – rather than “bouncing”

them
into it as Rusbridger says The Times and Independent did. Guardian
research involving 1,000 readers has apparently proved that
Berliner-size adverts have greater impact than broadsheet ones.

The
two-year wait has also given The Guardian the chance to equip 12,000
key newsagents (out of 50,000) with perspex dispensers to deal with
theproblem of where to display the new inbetween- size paper.

Since
the launch of the compact Indy, Rusbridger has been an outspoken critic
of the “viewspaper” concept championed by its editor Simon Kelner. And he remains convinced the straight telling of news is the best way for the press to compete in the digital age.

“All
the trends, especially in the US, are that the 18-25 generation prefer
the internet. They can get all the depth that they want from the
internet, they can get breaking news on their screens. And for a lot of people a free paper gives them all the details that they want. That’s a huge challenge for people producing big old-fashioned newspapers.

“Should
we lose our nerve and say that if people don’t want that, then we won’t
give it to them anymore? Or do you say that actually it’s vital that we
do the one thing that we can do that noone else will do – which is to
bring our journalistic skills and values to bear in a way that bloggers
and news sites will never be able to afford to do.”

Rusbridger
adds: “In the end we will work out how to earn a lot of revenue off the
internet. But there’s going to be an interim period where newspapers
struggle economically, and I think that’s going to be a testing period
for us all.

This is because the world will be divided into those
who hold their nerve and continue to do proper journalism, and those
who either can’t afford to or haven’t got the stomach to.”

Rusbridger’s
Berliner gambit impressed the Guardian Media Group board so much that
they rewarded him with a £150,000 bonus this year despite falling sales
and profits.

Rusbridger responds by pointing out that for most of
his ten-year editorship he has stuck to the NUJ-negotiated rise awarded
to all journalists and has rejected bonuses. Unlike other editors, he
says, he has no share options or other incentives. He said this year he
was pressed to take the extra sum by the GMG remuneration committee to
make-up what they saw as a shortfall in his pension pot.

One way
to shore up his pension finances could be to follow the example of
former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan – who spent a parallel decade
at the top – and write his memoirs.

Rusbridger says his version
of The Insider would be “much less exciting, much less glamorous, and
with far fewer lunches at The Ivy”.

So does he get as many invites to number 10 as the editor of the Daily Mirror?

“No.
There’s no point in trying to nobble me because the staff here are
individualistic, argumentative, awkward buggers, and if I came back
from a drink with Tony Blair and said my whole world view just changed,
I would get a shrug of the shoulders from people saying, ‘so what?’.
That’s probably why he doesn’t ask me round very often.”

From broadsheet to Berliner

THE NEW-LOOK GUARDIAN PAGE-BY-PAGE

Although Rusbridger refused to let Press Gazette take a copy of the
new-look Guardian away – he did talk us through it page by page.

At around a centimetre wider than a tabloid, though nine centimetres
longer, the new Guardian should be just as easy to open on a crowded
tube as The Times or The Independent.

The front is one surprise
Rusbridger insists on keeping up his sleeve, but the dummy “splash” we
saw was a fairly conservative affair: three or four short stories (or
write-offs)n and a comment piece down the side.

Rusbridger says
the front is designed “around a wet Wednesday in November” and intended
to convey “the sense that there’s more than one thing going on in the
world and there are a number of important things that you ought to know
about”. No move to Indy-style “concept fronts” planned then.

Page two of the dummy was largely taken up with digests and “sign-posting” to other parts of the paper.

Perhaps
most radical was the use of page three as the real “splash”, with a big
picture and headline opening the way to three pages of coverage on the
big story of the day.

Rusbridger says: “One of the things we have
been experimenting with is not putting the main story at the front of
the paper, but metering them out through the course of the run.”

The
news columns are wider than those currently used by tabloids or
broadsheets, at five to a page rather than six or eight, which means
the stories are longer than they look.

Rusbridger says the story count is the same as the broadsheet paper and the word count per page is only marginally lower.

One
innovation of the new design is a page of 90-100-word stories (longer
than nibs but shorter than usual stories) – Rusbridger says these will
be used to “take tougher editorial choices earlier in the day” and so
free up space elsewhere in the paper.

The new-look Guardian’s
middle spread is one of the most dramatic changes and is completely
taken up with a poster-style news picture – on the dummy Press Gazette
saw, it was an aerial shot of a devastated New Orleans, depicted in
incredible detail, helped by the new press technology.

Rusbridger
says: “I’m very keen to get that sort of ‘wow’ factor in so that you’ve
got these quite serious pages, but don’t know what the next change of
pace and surprise is going to be. You can just do something that
absolutely knocks your socks off, but happens in the news run.”

Every
day there will be a 12-page Berlinersize sport supplement, also in full
colour, and a half-Berliner size stapled full-colour G2 section
described as the UK’s first daily news magazine.

The old G3
sections have been expanded to Berliner size, which means that bulky
advertising- rich supplements like Society are less cumbersome than
before.

All the Saturday sections – such as Review and Work and
Money (which replaces Jobs and Money) – will be Berliner size apart
from The Guide and Weekend magazine. And a new section on that day
called Family will deal with home life and relationships.

Weekend magazine will include more fashion, food and interiors, but maintain a strong photojournalism element up front.

Rusbridger
says: “There will be a debate over the coming months about sections.
The Times and The Independent, for all their compactness, are quite
unwieldy in terms of trying to find out where you are in the book.

“The
problem you have with a tabloid is sections within sections within
sections – you are back into that origami world of getting your law
section from your sports section from your Bricks and Mortar from your
business section.

“I think the Berliner will give you immediately
identifiable sports, features, G2, G3, as well as the main section –
this way it feels to me much more convenient than a tabloid which has a
very long run of pages.”

The whole package is tied together with
a new specially designed font called Guardian Egyptian, which is used
for all body and headline text in every section.

Throughout the
new-look Guardian, the pictures are cropped in all manner of different
sizes and often spread over two pages – a luxury seldom afforded by the
old presses and their limited colour capacity.

Rusbridger says
his photographers and picture desk are “thrilled” by the new format and
adds: “They’ve got potential here to do just astonishing stuff.”

Comments
No comments to display

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

eighteen − fourteen =

CLOSE
CLOSE