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The End of an Era

After 159 years the broadsheet tradition has ended for the weekday edition of The Age. It has become a tabloid-sized newspaper 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 this smaller Fairfax newspaper? 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 plant) that the “compact” version will contain the same “quality journalism” as when it was broadsheet. 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.

Hywood did not explicitly stated that the company would pursue a “downmarket” approach when The Age changed size, and he was deliberate in using the term “compact” rather than tabloid. Tabloids tend to be dogged with a reputation for prurience and sensationalism. 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 yesterday (5 March). 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.

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.

Since the 1970′s premium news pages have fewer stories, bigger pictures and more advertising as compared to each decade before. Editors have also shifted their lead-story focus toward crime stories and away from international reporting. The move toward tabloidisation of content has resulted in different editorial priorities, including less investigative reporting. Research has shown that when Australian broadsheets become tabloids their investigative reporting diminishes. Three examples are Brisbane’s Courier Mail, the Adelaide Advertiser and the Newcastle Herald.

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.

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