From the Media section of The Australian, September 9, 2004:
Compact about the size of it
THE future of newspapers – whether they will shrink or disappear altogether – was the hot topic at the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers Association annual conference on the Gold Coast this week.
Eric Beecher, former editor-in-chief of the Herald and Weekly Times, singled out the internet as a serious threat to capital city broadsheets that depend on classified advertising sales.
"They are the ones, in my view, that are clearly vulnerable to the better mouse trap that has come along, which is internet classified advertising," he said. "The most vulnerable newspapers are the ones that commit the greatest resources to journalism. It's going to have a devastating effect on the kind of journalism those newspapers can support in the future."
However, PANPA president Ken Steinke described newspapers as the most vibrant sector of the media industry. "In this fiercely competitive environment, newspapers continue to stand out from the crowd, reinventing themselves and finding new ways to be of service to our customers and readers."
Robert Thomson, editor of The Times in London, concentrated on the future size of newspapers, telling of the success of The Times's compact edition.
He said the main reason for the introduction of the compact was not to "dumb down" the newspaper or produce a lesser product but to produce a size convenient for the commuter market, which is more important in London than Australia.
As Thomson, an Australian whose professional life began as a copy boy on the Melbourne Herald, explained, they wanted a newspaper that people could read easily on the train but that still contained quality journalism.
"Tabloid has a lot of connotations and we wanted to get rid of those connotations but keep the size," he said, explaining why the word compact was chosen.
"It was also very important to have a marketing campaign that reinforced the idea that The Times [is] still a very serious and quality newspaper."
Thomson said that since the compact version of The Times was launched in December last year, circulation had increased 10 per cent. He said there had been little loss of existing readers – although he showed the PANPA audience a letter that accused him of "being remembered as the man who destroyed The Times" – while the new format had drawn in new readers.
"Once they've had the experience of The Times, then hopefully they would recognise the quality of the paper."
But Thomson also said it was important for management to "take the journalists along" – after all, most had spent their professional lives as broadsheet journalists and now the format was changing.
But he said the main people who needed to learn new skills were not so much reporters – the newspaper's content has not changed dramatically – but sub-editors and designers.
He also conceded that while the newspaper has made strides in its weekday circulation, it still has to "get Saturdays right".
Lifestyle changes were in turn changing the weekend market – again, the British market is very different from that of Australia – and this presents a dilemma for newspapers. While readers expect a bulky newspaper with up to 12 sections, they rarely have time to read it.
"It's very difficult to take away something from readers that they're used to having," Thomson said.
"Unread sections of the paper are a reminder of things not done, and what should be a pleasure becomes a switch-off and something to feel guilty about."
At the same time, the British were becoming more active at the weekend, and didn't necessarily "want to spend Saturday afternoon with us on the couch".
"Another issue is that more and more people are not on the couch," he said. "The fluctuations in weather patterns and our circulation demonstrate that. A sunny warm Saturday is a disaster for us. Thankfully, a sunny warm Saturday in England is something of a rarity."
Newsource manager and former editor of The Australian Alan Farrelly also predicted that newspapers will become smaller. He suggested all Australian broadsheets had probably looked seriously at producing tabloid issues.
"And I don't think there's a tabloid newspaper in the country which hasn't got a couple of dummies of an A4-size paper somewhere in a bottom drawer," he said.
Additional reporting: AAP