In a move that would raise few eyebrows in the rest of the world but is still unusual in the United States, the Columbus Dispatch will soon be decreasing the size of its pages. Over the next two months, Ohio’s award-winning capital city newspaper is completing a transformation from the classical broadsheet format to what it is calling the “new broadsheet.”
The reinvention is based on three principles: convenience, portability and navigability. With its “easier-to-handle” proportions and increased use of colour, the new Dispatch will be “more like a daily magazine,” said the newspaper’s Editor Ben Marrison. It will not, however, skimp on content; to compensate for the loss in surface area, more pages will be added. “This isn’t a cost-saving endeavour,” emphasized Marrison in an interview with NPR’s All Sides. “This is taking the first version smartphone, and creating the fifth.” With mobile phones and computers constantly being reconceptualised to better complement consumers’ lifestyles, he reasoned, “why not reinvent the newspaper?”
As print revenues continue to bolster balance sheets despite slumping circulation, there are more than a few publishers trying to reinvent the print product. Dutch company Layar is using augmented reality to bring paper and ink to life, and the UK version of Marie Claire is soon to bear the country’s first-ever printed video advertisement, to name two examples.
On the more conservative end of the innovation scale, page size has been shrinking worldwide for some time, and the Dispatch is one of many Anglo-Saxon newspapers to have caught on to the benefits of metamorphosis. The New Zealand Herald has reportedly decreased its page size as of today, and Australian titles The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald are following suit in March of next year. British titles The Independent, The Times and Scotland’s The Scotsman went tabloid in 2004, and the emphasis on a more magazine-like look can be seen in Canada’s The Globe and Mail, which began using glossy paper in 2010. A format known as the “Berliner” or “midi” is used by The Guardian, Le Monde in France and El Mundo in Spain. However, papers in the United States have been more reluctant than their Commonwealth (or, certainly, their Continental) counterparts to take this leap, partially due to the dignity associated with the broadsheet (the format favoured by The New York Times and The Washington Post), and the unsavoury whiffs of low-brow sensationalism carried by the word “tabloid.”
While Editor & Publisher has labelled the Dispatch’s new size “sub-tabloid,” the newspaper’s marketers and management are studiously avoiding the ‘T’ word, which is infused with negative connotations and reminiscent of less-than-scrupulous publications such as the now defunct News of the World. Technically, though, it need only refer to a newspaper’s size and configuration: the tabloid format is usually 17 inches tall and 11 inches wide with the fold on the left. Broadsheets, meanwhile, are an imposing 22 inches tall and 11.5 inches wide and fold at the waist, just below several of day’s most important headlines. In the United States, comparatively few newspapers have been willing to give up this format, which Stephen Komives, the Director of the Society for News Design, says was created in Britain hundreds of years ago when newspapers were taxed by the page – that is, not at all with the reader in mind.
The Dispatch’s marketing campaign touts the new shape as being “formatted for life.” Its smaller dimensions will make it less of a nuisance on a windy park bench or underground train, and to enhance readability, stories will be split into an increased number of sections. These will remain separated, allowing families to continue divvying them up around the breakfast table. They will also remain wide enough to line a birdcage, and their ink can still be transferred onto silly putty to make temporary tattoos, as readers were reassured during a July preview of the new look, according to Editor & Publisher.
While Marrison admitted in the interview with NPR that most articles would be around ten percent shorter, he was adamant that the reduction would come from tighter writing, and would not be at the expense of the high reporting standards of a newspaper that the Associated Press of Ohio has rated the best in the state for three out of four years. The transformation, he said, is “really focused on what the readers want.”
“When we built this news format, we stripped it naked. We started with a blank page and asked ourselves, ‘what would readers tell us to do?’ - that was first - then, ‘what would advertisers tell us to do?’ - that was second,” he said. Marrison explained how, during testing phases, the Dispatch’s sceptical management was unable to believe their focus groups’ overwhelmingly positive reactions to the new layout. Assuming that they had poorly chosen their focus groups, they continued testing with new groups, and were continuously surprised when the same results surfaced. “People love it,” he said.
And the readers are not alone: the increased number of sections provides better opportunities for targeted ad placement. “We’ve built in anchored advertising positions…[and advertisers are] buying those positions out,” he said. “That doesn’t happen.” So why is it happening? “Advertisers like adjacencies,” Marrison explained. “There’s a reason why there are beer commercials during athletic events, right?”
To enable all of this, the Dispatch will retrofit its presses. The reduced size means that three pages will now fit into the space that formerly housed two, allowing the plant’s productivity to rise by 50 percent. The Dispatch has made deals to increase its plant’s efficiency by also printing the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Kentucky Enquirer beginning in the fall, both of which will also be moving toward the 14.6 inches by 10.5 inches “three-around” format. And according to Marrison, it will not stop there.
“This will be the new format in the country. I’m positive of it,” he predicted.
Image courtesy of the Columbus Dispatch