Shaping up to the future

Guardian
editor Alan Rusbridger says the decision by two national newspapers to
go tabloid is evidence of a fundamental change that goes far beyond
mere size. He made the comments when delivering the Hugo Young
Journalism Lecture at the University of Sheffield last week

IT IS NOW
18 months since Hugo Young died, leaving a really gaping hole not just
at The Guardian but in British and European journalism generally.

Hugo
died just before a significant moment in recent journalism in this
country; the decision of the Independent – and, within weeks, the Times
– to change shape, breaking the traditional link between broadsheet
size and a certain style of quality journalism.

That change in
size brought increased circulation for the two papers and demanded a
response – if only a defiant refusal to change – from the three
remaining broadsheet dailies.

At The Guardian we were – directly
or tangentially – affected by all these squalls or storms. The
Independent and The Times were taking some of our readers, especially
those journeying to work on cramped public transport. Some of them
undeniably found the tabloid size altogether more convenient.

The London Metro was taking some more.

As
we considered our response, we found ourselves having some fundamental
debates about what, in a crowded media hypermarket, a newspaper was for?

What task should it set itself? How should it measure success?

ABC
figures show the Sun wins hands down over its rivals. At its best, it’s
terrific fun and boasts one of the most formidable political editors of
his generation.

But that’s not necessarily the way it sells itself.

Sun spots

On the left are some recent Sun front pages, all of them entirely typical.

The point is very simply made that the editorial team at the Sun has
evidently decided that – on most days of the week – the main news of
the day is not the thing that’s most guaranteed to shift copies. So
they’re trying a variety of techniques – very few of them to do with
news – to sell the paper.

Profitable margins

The striking figure on the illustration above is the profit made by
the Mail titles. Wouldn’t it be the most natural thing in the world –
if you owned, or edited one of those loss-making, declining newspapers
in the market at the top of the slide – to ask: Why can’t we do that?”
Or even: “Why can’t we have some of that?”

How best to subliminally slide into the upper end of the Mail
market? A start is obviously to change shape – to look more like the
paper that makes those huge profits. But – our hypothetical editors and
managers might have thought – a change in shape alone probably won’t do
it. So why don’t we steal some of the techniques that seem to work in
this new market:

  • punchy front pages
  • opinionated copy: views before news
  • picture-led lay-outs striking, lively, focused presentation.
  • headlines with attitude
  • take-no-prisoners writing.

Now, of course, if that was the hypothetical plan, the last thing
you’d do is to admit in any way that this was what you were doing.

So
the story you’d tell is that the papers were exactly the same! We’ve
just made it more convenient for you, the reader. Anyone with half a
brain and/or a ruler could work out in seconds that these two new kids
on the tabloid block were not the same as the dead cocoons they’d shed
behind them. The Independent’s front pages are utterly different from
the front pages of Andreas Whitham Smith, or even of early Kelner. That
may be a good thing or a bad thing. But the starting point of the
discussion ought at least to be a frank acknowledgement that things
have changed.

The same with The Times. For a while, the paper was
produced in dual format and it was easy enough to demonstrate that the
two papers were markedly different. Different in tone, priority,
prominence, news values, story length and so on. But the paper refused
to budge from its public assertion that the two products were exactly
the same!

Again, this is not to argue that the present Times is
worse – or better – than the old Times. I’m a rival editor: you would
hardly trust me to be unbiased in my opinion. So I offer no opinion.
All I say is that two of our most important newspapers have changed,
quite strikingly, in ways far beyond mere shape. And that, it seems to
me, is not without significance. How journalists tell stories has an
effect on the civic process. Ask anyone in public life.

Let me
illustrate. In discussing let me say I admire The Independent’s editor,
Simon Kelner. His paper was failing as a broadsheet, it’s acquired an
identity as a tabloid. And to do it justice ,it does care about
important things. But try this test: you go away for a year and you
return to find all the national newspapers using these techniques. How
would you feel?

.Different agenda

The Bush by numbers is one of The Independent’s trademark front
pages, when they forget the news agenda and strike out on their own.
For this page, they purchased second serial rights to a book
criticising George Bush by the editor of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter.
Independent readers were being told – on the front page, and not, it’s
fair to say, for the first time – what a bad man George W Bush was.

It’s a striking page, and each time they hit the nail with one of
these pages they reckon to have a spike of circulation – sometimes a
few thousand copies, sometimes more. Simon is quite frank about the aim
behind these pages: he calls it an elision between news and marketing.

But
to get the full significance of the page you have to know the news The
Independent ignored that day. Nearly a thousand people were being held
hostage by Chechen rebels in Beslan. The following day, more than 300
of them would die, half of them children. It was front page news on
virtually every paper around the planet.

Majority decision

Here are The Times,The Telegraph and The Guardian that day.

I’ve discussed this front page with Simon. I thought that, in
retrospect, he’d regret it. There are plenty of Guardian front pages I
wish I could make again.

But, no. Simon continues to defend Bush By Numbers.

This
was a story in which newspapers could not compete with television, he
has said publicly. He was happy to have left the story alone and
concentrated on something eye-catchingly different. Newspapers, he
says, are increasingly about views rather than news. He has coined the
phrase “a viewspaper”.

Well, again, leave aside the rights and wrongs of that call on Beslan.

Once
again – let’s just acknowledge that something fundamentally different
is happening here. A newspaper is regularly setting out its stall, not
on what happened yesterday, or what it means, but on what you should
think. That is a very big change in the culture of how a newspaper is
run.

If you’re wondering where you’d seen these sorts of
techniques before, the answer, funnily enough, is the front page of the
Mail titles. Both daily and Sunday titles – highly successful and
profitable, as we’ve noted – use almost identical techniques regularly.

Selling point

Here’s a mid-market title reporting the signing of an EU common policy on immigration and asylum.

There is no pretence at telling the story straight. It hits you
between the eyes as you approach the newsagent’s counter in the
morning. It sells copies.

What’s wrong with that? People are voting with their pockets.

Two
more Independent front pages – their reporting of the Hutton and Butler
reports, two big milestones in British public life over the last year
or so.

In each case I’ve juxtaposed The Independent’s treatment with the Daily Mail’s front pages of the same day.

Hutton fronts

One says Whitewash? One says Justice? The technique is the same.

Both papers begin by suggesting to readers that the report is pretty
much worthless – and somewhere inside they will tell you what the
report actually says.

And then there was the Butler Report

Butler fronts

Again, identical techniques in both papers. No-one to Blame! plays Who was to Blame? No-one!

But, in fact – as one or two of the beady-eyed may have spotted –
those pages have in fact been transposed by a clever graphic artist at
The Guardian. In fact it was the other way round.

But the point is made.

What
may be happening here is less a revolution in broadsheet newspapers
than a simple convergence of markets, with a straightforward acceptance
that some newspaper techniques sell more copies than others.

By and large The Times has struck a straighter, more serious tone in its front pages.

But
on odd days you can detect an urge to break free of the shackles – to
abandon all the weighty baggage that went with the burden of being a
sober paper of record.

I have nothing against the tabloid form
itself – I was the launch editor of both the tabloid Weekend Guardian
and the tabloid G2.

But it wasn’t clear to me that you could
compete in this – the most competitive sector of the most competitive
newspaper market in the world – without adopting pretty much the same
techniques as all the others.

How dull and dowdy plain old straight news would look.

Throughout
all this time, I can’t remember reading a single piece in the
mainstream press – or hearing a single radio item or television piece –
debating whether the greater public good, the overall level and tone of
public discourse in this country – would have been improved by having
nine tabloid newspapers in Britain, all using more or less the same
techniques to sell copies.

It was as if a quarter of our teachers
had suddenly decided to adopt a different curriculum, but nobody
discussed whether the new curriculum was better or worse than the old
one.

Or all the doctors in the North adopting a new surgical
technique – one that treated more patients more efficiently –without a
single newspaper analyzing whether the patients got better, or not.

This
is an extract from the inaugural Hugo Young Journalism Lecture given at
the University of Sheffield. The full text can be found at
www.mediguardian.co.uk

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