It’s a sign of the times, and the state of print journalism in the UK, that The Guardian and its sister Sunday paper The Observer will become tabloid newspapers from early 2018. Their shrinking size, from the current tall and slim European-style ‘Berliner’ format to tabloid dimensions, is symbolic of the ongoing battle to keep print journalism alive. After saying 12 years ago when it adopted the Berliner format that it was keen to avoid the ‘easy short-term tabloid route’, The Guardian is now doing just that, which in many way feels like a last-ditch attempt to manage soaring losses; abandoning its broadsheet heritage to potentially appeal to a wider demographic of readers and advertisers.
The Guardian is referring to its decision as a “three-year transformation plan”, which will see the newspaper evolve in line with the rest of the print industry. Despite the move, David Pemsel, chief executive of Guardian Media Group, claims “more people are reading and supporting our journalism than ever before”.
“The Berliner is a beautiful format which has served our readers brilliantly for 12 years but we know that it is our award-winning, quality, independent journalism that our readers value most, rather than the shape or the size of the newspapers,” adds Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of the Guardian. “We are going to create a new-look tabloid Guardian and Observer that are bold, striking and beautiful – and which still contain the agenda-setting journalism for which we’re renowned.”
Reassuringly, despite diminishing print advertising revenues, GMG claims it remains committed “to high-quality print journalism”. Last year, The Guardian reported losses of £69m for the previous financial year, compared with £14.7m in 2015. The company was forced to cut more than 260 jobs through a voluntary redundancy scheme. It also saw circulation collapse from 341,000 copies in April 2005 when the titles started printing in Berliner format, to just 154,000 in April this year.
The Guardian attributes much of its losses to Google and Facebook, who it says are swallowing up the lion’s share of digital ad budgets. As digital competition continues to grow, GMG hopes that its transformation plan will help the business to break even at operating level by 2019.
The shift to a tabloid format will also necessitate the closure of its printing sites in Trafford and Stratford, which will affect around 50 jobs, and its three specially commissioned £80m printing presses will be sold or scrapped. The Guardian has signed a contract for Trinity Mirror, publisher of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People, to print its new tabloid format from early next year. The expenses associated with the specialist presses had made them increasingly prohibitive to run, and the move to outsource is expected to generate millions of pounds for GMG in savings annually.
Moving forward, in addition to the colourful and new, smaller tabloid format, the Guardian will also be experimenting further with its membership scheme. It’s rapidly becoming a core aspect of the business and last year the Guardian claimed more than 50,000 people had paid to sign up, with members paying between £5 and £60 a month to join one of three tiers of membership. The newspaper has a further 150,000 people signed up as non-paying digital members and a total of 181,000 subscribers across print and digital. Above all, the Guardian has stated on many occasions that it hopes to avoid being forced down the paywall route. If the tabloid format helps to thwart this happening, it’s arguably a small price to pay for continued free, independent journalist content.
The membership scheme is still in its early days. “What we’ve got to work out, is it a donation, someone just saying I want to keep the Guardian open and free to all? Is it in exchange for value – you give us a bit more and it’s a bit more personalised? Actually the banner of membership could be a whole number of different iterations about how we build deeper relationships with our readers and get them to make a greater contribution,” said Pemsel, in a Guardian article last year.
Although it will be a poignant moment seeing the first tabloid Guardian appear on newsstands, there’s no doubt it’s a logical and sensible step to be taking. The Times, of course, went tabloid back in 2004, which it initially claimed had transformed its fortunes. It led to much speculation about all UK newspapers going tabloid and so, in many ways, it’s impressive the Guardian has held off doing so for so long.