The end of an era for Fairfax: but does size matter?

smh readerIn this post for The Conversation, the University of Melbourne’s Andrea Carson explores the differences in perception between broadsheet and compact.

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?

First day of compact edition of SMH

First day of compact edition of SMH

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.

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.

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.

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 “tabloidisation”. 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 has 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 tabloidisation 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.

Andrea Carson is a lecturer in media, politics and society and was once a journalist at The Age. She has submitted a PhD about the future of Australian broadsheets.

The Conversation

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

Comments


  1. NJK
    4 Mar 13
    11:05 am

  2. Today’s SMH just looks like a slightly reworked (and slightly better) Sun Herald. The problem is they are stuck between two worlds – still with the broadsheet pretence but in a tabloid format. I expect the Fairfax bosses will take a long, long time to admit it’s “tabloid” and will carry on with the B.S “compact” notion, which isn’t fooling anyone. In a world of journalism where euphemisms are frowned upon, compact is the dumbest of them all.
    Fairfax’s own Newcastle Herald went “compact” a long time ago, and it’s only just now realising that it is in fact a tabloid. If the SMH takes that long to adjust, it won’t survive.

  3. Technojames
    4 Mar 13
    11:25 am

  4. Size may not matter but in the following article:

    http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/leth.....2ffep.html

    had a photo with the following caption “Greg Wood … decieded to try heroine.”

    I’m going to assume it is bring your child to work day…

  5. Alistair McEwan
    4 Mar 13
    11:39 am

  6. Interesting research and no doubt merit to it. Two observations. As a reader of The Times in the UK, the product post compact change was more appealing to read, both the content and physically (tube and train nightmare with broadsheet). What felt like a paper for my parents before the change began to feel like a paper for me post downsize.

    However, paper change is a moot point, all media now compete for the mobility empowered reader, so this is not a game changer but a sensible way for newspaper media to position their brands to younger, digitally driven demos and this means shaping the content and critically the brand accordingly. No baby out with the bath water though.

  7. paul the freelance writer
    4 Mar 13
    1:22 pm

  8. Like comparing the woolly mammoth with the sabre-tooth tiger.

  9. James
    5 Mar 13
    1:46 am

  10. The “Resized” Papers will look more at home along side their free counterparts. Much easier to light BBQ’s with.

  11. Researcher
    5 Mar 13
    3:45 am

  12. I am assuming the research that Andrea has done was purely of the desk variety.

    Having undertaken and evaluated a number of titles shift in format in a professional capacity it is difficult to look at the impact of the change from broadsheet to tabloid on a titles content without considering the wider context. By that I mean the change in the type of content carried by newspapers since moving from broadsheet to tabloid has not only been driven by the change in format but the fact that growing numbers of readers access news on the internet or other sources than newspapers.

    Newspapers are no longer about breaking news. It is rare that people will first encounter a major news story (investigative news stories aside) in the print version of their daily newspaper. They are no longer first with news. Their role has become a vehicle for allowing readers to understand and evaluate news stories. Readers can read informed writers views/opinions on a story and get a deeper level of understanding about participants in the story. This is what has shaped the changing content of newspapers over recent years particularly for the broadsheets migrating down in size.

    Tabloids on the other hand having progressively moved content away from breaking news further into gossip, celebrity and sport. News stories are given a salacious spin usually with a participant in the story paid to deliver an exclusive inside scoop. Tabloids are actively migrating into the content space previously owned by the weekly magazines. Again these magazines (due to their publication frequency) could never break a story (newspapers filled that roll) but would often look for the story within the story particularly where a celebrity was involved.

    Apologies for the stream of consciousness that just flowed out. I have always had an interest in the effect on content in traditional media that the internet has had.

  13. Ann
    5 Mar 13
    9:26 am

  14. Was at a coffee shop yesterday and people were not picking it up. They must not have recognised what it was.

  15. paul the freelance writer
    5 Mar 13
    10:04 am

  16. True up to a point, Researcher, but the Herald Sun’s editor might disagree given its front pages in the last two days.

    The most important person in the news right now is the irrepressible Mr Source who is very good with a tape recorder and telephone lines.

  17. The cap fits
    7 Mar 13
    10:45 am

  18. I just checked out the Daily Life section and there are six writers featured – all of them women! They are writing on topics such as “women for Julia” and “Australia’s richest women” and “why women should stop apologising.”

    If some women think the title “female perspective” if offensive, maybe they should start lobbying to change reality instead of just the label – boot half of those women out and source some opinions from men! Publish something about why men should stop apologising so much or “men for Tony”. Then they could call it “balanced perspective”.
    But somehow I don’t think that’s what they really want.

  19. Cynic
    7 Mar 13
    11:46 am

  20. This recent attention on format is all a dead cat bounce.