The revolution that came from Switzerland

January 1, 2005 • Ethics and Quality • by

Medienwirtschaft, Nr. 01, 2005

More readers benefit – thanks to smaller tabloid format
With the era of national hero William Tell long gone, Switzerland is only rarely considered a hotbed for revolutions. Nevertheless, today we are witnessing something of a pocket-sized “upheaval” which, at least for the German-speaking part of Europe, really does have its origin in Helvetia. At the moment, in this region, it is spreading from South to North. In the rest of Europe the development seems to be taking the opposite direction. Wherever one looks, the more courageous newspaper publishers, many of them still suffering from the economic crisis, are banking on a new format for their publications: small is beautiful – tabloids are gaining ground.

But which tabloids? In England publishers successfully concluded that presenting the same content in a smaller format could attract a larger readership. The German counterparts seem to be aiming their tabloids mainly at readers who:

a) normally don’t read the daily newspapers at all, either because they are too young or simply not interested

b) would like to cut back on their daily reading time. Some of the newspaper publishers, it seems, have realised how much their sophisticated readers in particular suffer from information overload.

One of the journalistic challenges of our time lies in conveying information in a concise and pithy manner, but without condensing it too much so as to retain the added value that still sets the printed media quality apart from radio and television. Alas, the latter are currently competing all across Europe for one single thing, and that is: to satisfy the need for “information” – aka entertainment – of an audience they mostly seem to consider downright illiterate.

The success of the sophisticated journalistic content in a smaller format has been amply demonstrated by the success of Switzerland’s Weltwoche. In Germany, even though following quite a different journalistic philosophy, two daily newspapers Welt-Kompakt (published by Springer) and News (a Holtzbrink group publication), have followed the Swiss example.

Since there is a niche market for high-quality journalism in a reduced format, the current newspaper crisis also entails the scope of re-inventing journalism. Incidentally, this also applied to the Financial Times Deutschland, the German version of the Financial Times run by local editorial staff. Even though it was launched in the traditional broadsheet format, the paper’s success indicates that economic elites, in particular, are willing to pay almost the same for a paper hardly half the size of its direct competitor Handelsblatt. Less paper can mean more reader benefit.

In retrospect, it is tempting to ask why it actually took so long for The Independent and The Times (UK), Dagens Nyheter (Sweden), San Francisco Examiner (USA), Het Parool (NL), De Standaard (Belgium) and even a tabloid like Switzerland’s Blick to change to a compact size – and why re-launched German broadsheets like Die Zeit, Frankfurter Rundschau or Der Tagesspiegel have not (yet?) opted the same and are potentially making big time with the small format. This has, of course, a lot to do with aesthetic appeal as well as with advertising agencies worried about the impact of their (smaller) adverts and keen on having enough space for realising their creative potential.

However, smart publishers will never forget that it is the readers whoi eventually lead the way to the wealthier (and hence more interesting) segment of advertising clients. The main target audience should never be the ad agencies or the companies paying for the ad campaigns, but the thousands of people that make up the readership of any newspaper. Without their willingness to actually use the printed media – including the time and, in most cases, money involved in doing so – not a single advertising euro is likely to drop into the publishers’ tills.

Not only publishers, but companies trying to create awareness of their products and services will always prefer readers to happily leaf through their compact papers on the underground train system, at home or on the beach – as opposed to the scenario when they have to fold up their big broadsheets – unread – either because it disturbs others using the public transport , or because the wind has caught in its over-sized sheets again. Only those who actually read the paper will (potentially) take in the advertisers’ messages.

In addition, the small format is making the big time exactly where some of the media pundits are predicting the newspapers’ future to lie anyway: on the Internet. Smaller newspaper formats are far more “web-compatible” than bigger ones. What a nuisance it is to browse online through a standard-size page taken from the Süddeutsche Zeitung or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung! And people are actually expected to pay for this?

In my opinion, there are only two types of readers who might actually mourn the loss of the standard-size broadsheets:

Type 1: the dyed-in-the-wool conservative, a creature of habit who will always prefer things to stay the same and is unwilling to see beyond his own nose. Lest he would have long discovered that elsewhere in Europe, e.g. in Spain (El Pais), Switzerland (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) or Italy (La Repubblica), compact-sized quality papers have a time-honoured tradition, and one that has never caused any controversy in the first place. (The case of Germany’s notorious large-size tabloid Bild, by the way, shows quite conclusively that the larger format is not the prerogative of quality papers aimed solely at intellectual high-flyers.)

Type 2: the detectives, peeping toms, or even investigating journalists who all need the large-size paper to play hide-and-seek with the people they are observing, to cover or camouflage themselves, peeking over the top of its pages, while themselves remaining unseen.

Every publisher must take the inertia of type 1 into account. But with a little luck these readers would not cancel their subscriptions even if the format and the content of their favourite paper were cut in half overnight. Type 2, on the other hand, is a Hollywood cliché and might as well be happily ignored altogether.

As a publisher, however, I would lose sleep over all those airline passengers who are obliged to put away my paper due to a lack of reading space. And even if they should doze off while leafing through the gaudy (small-sized) airline-magazine they had to pick up instead – there is still no reason for an all-clear! For they might start dreaming of their next newspaper-free holidays, maybe in the Bahamas, or on the mountainous flanks of the Matterhorn…

Medien Wirtschaft. Zeitschrift für Medienmanagement und Kommunikationsökonomie, 2. Jg. Nr. 1/2005, 41-42

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