By Andrea Carson, University of Melbourne
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?
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.
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.
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 was once a journalist at The Age, and has submitted a
PhD about the future of Australian broadsheets.