Shrinking size not the real change at tabloid ‘Guardian’

Newspaper’s ‘Berliner’ era fell short of 13 years. Will this new one last as long?

In a cost-cutting move, the Guardian Media Group has ditched the distinctive Berliner size after just over 12 years and gone tabloid. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

In a cost-cutting move, the Guardian Media Group has ditched the distinctive Berliner size after just over 12 years and gone tabloid. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

 

When the Guardian posted an image of its first tabloid front page on Twitter on Sunday night, one of the pithier verdicts/jokes was “es ist kein Berliner” – best translated as “it’s no Berliner”.

The new design doesn’t do much wrong, but the Berliner was a lovely, enviable format. Borrowed from Europe, then editor Alan Rusbridger hailed it on its adoption in September 2005 as “a modern print format for a new generation of readers” and the “best of both worlds”, combining “the portability of a tabloid with the sensibility of a broadsheet”.

Yes, the slender Berliner was beautiful, but it arrived too late. At 12½ years, its life fell short of a generation. And even in 2005, the phrase “modern print format” was teetering on the edge of oxymoronic if not already a clear contradiction in terms.

Critics objected that, notwithstanding the initial sales boost, the Guardian Media Group had surely wasted its money on its specially commissioned Berliner printing presses (total investment £80 million), and that this was another example of poor commercial decision-making: The Guardian and its Sunday sister title, the Observer, could have gone tabloid for nothing like the same costs.

As a loyal and short-armed Guardian reader trying to keep broadsheet newsprint out of my soup, the only thing I cared about then was that the paper was slimming down. This time around, the conversations about newspaper format and design have made me nostalgic for 2005 when format and design were synonymous with the brand identity of a news organisation – not secondary to the click-worthiness of their social media posts or the functionality of their apps.

No longer are redesigns about selling more copies. They are about saving money.

Newspaper journalists still like to feast their eyes on product changes, of course, and Monday’s print edition of the Guardian is guaranteed to have been the most closely studied in years. “Welcome to the new tabloid,” wrote editor-in-chief Katharine Viner, eschewing the mocked “compact” term derided as snobbish by the red tops.

Distinctive

The key impact of this redesign was that, in terms of its competition, the newspaper is no longer as distinctive as it was when it was the only Berliner in town. For me, the chaotic blurbs above the masthead in the new design are the worst feature, while the classy, subtle pink tint of its Journal section and what Viner calls the “bold use of photography” and other visual journalism are the best. (The new fonts on its website are also elegant and brand-appropriate.)

Amid misgivings about the new masthead, there has been an outpouring of online love for the 2005-2018 one, though when it was introduced it also sparked an inbox of reader “anxieties”, pointing to the truism that people simply don’t like change.

But whether or not the changes are well-received feels much less important for this redesign exercise than it was for its predecessors. That’s because the primary motivation this time was not to refresh or modernise the look of the titles, but to save millions in costs. The big change is hardly from Berliner to tabloid, but from printing newspapers on its own presses to outsourcing that function to Trinity Mirror.

The Guardian, which made a loss of £45 million (€51 million) in the year to last April, is drawing a thick line under its 2005 investment and perhaps moving closer to the finish line of its history as a print product.

Circulation

In line with industry trends, its circulation is less than half what it was then. So will the tabloid era last as long as the Berliner one? It may not be part of its current plans, but it would hardly be a shock were it to follow the London Independent out of the print market, stopping the presses completely and existing only online.

Notwithstanding the 11th-hour nature of the shift from broadsheet to Berliner, the Guardian has a track record of being technologically innovative in how it presents its journalism to the world. It tends to do stuff early, not late.

For now, however, the staff-shedding group is focusing on breaking even next year, which would be an achievement in the light of circulation and advertising pressures, the absence of a paywall and the unpredictability of future income from its payment-coaxing membership scheme.

In 2005, few people foresaw the extent to which mobiles would weaken the habit of dedicated, daily reading time to a single publication, replacing it with dozens of hasty dips in and out of whatever links came their way.

Readers used to get incredibly angry about newspaper redesigns because if they didn’t like them, they felt they had to lump them. They weren’t going to switch “tribes” – they had already discounted the other, finite, options on the newsstand. Back then, redesigns were a real risk, and the inevitable complaints an indication that people cared.

Today, the trouble for media groups is that it’s much harder to inspire loyalty, especially if they have to do it from scratch.