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The tabloid turn

By David Rowe - posted Tuesday, 5 March 2013


Embattled Fairfax broadsheets The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age are now appearing in tabloid format. Modifying the dimensions of a newspaper should be an uncontroversial change, but this is far from the case.

'Going tabloid' is a deeply symbolic move, leading to the word being expunged from all current Fairfax Media communications. The more positive or neutral-sounding word "compact" is preferred. Fairfax has been here before – using the term when The Newcastle Herald went tabloid in 1998, as did News Limited in describing its "conversion" of The Brisbane Courier-Mail in 2006.

The Newcastle Herald also adopted the sprightly catch cry "Compact with Impact" to describe not just a shift in size, but an affirmation of continuing effectiveness. That message has also been used in the UK, leading its resolutely broadsheet-sized Telegraph to retaliate with a slogan of its own – "Impact, Not Compact".

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Another UK newspaper, The Independent, deployed an additional reassuring slogan for readers when it produced a tabloid version alongside a broadsheet in 2003 – "same newspaper, different size". Within two years, it stopped broadsheet production altogether, closely followed by The Times and The Scotsman as "quality tabloids" – for some an oxymoron. It also quickly became clear that newspaper content cannot remain unaffected by the shift from large pages with multiple stories to much more numerous smaller pages crammed with images, texts and advertisements.

The trend has been just as pronounced in the USA, where The Chicago Tribune warned in 2004 of "The Next British Invasion: Tabloidization".

So, the Anglo world's newspapers are going tabloid without speaking its name. They have experimented with other formats, such as the longer, thinner "Berliner" or "Midi" shape familiar to readers of The New York Times and The Guardian. Indeed, Fairfax Media was going down that path for its metropolitan broadsheets, which it then abandoned. Tabloids are all the rage because they are believed to be more convenient to handle, especially for commuters penned in the public squalor of mass transit.

Tabloids may be easier to handle on trains and buses, but they carry a lot of baggage. First associated with pharmaceuticals in the 19th century, "tabloid" has been used pejoratively with regard to the printed word since the early 20th century, including by literary heavyweights Arthur Koestler and Vladimir Nabokov.

Broadsheet advocates have tended to associate tabloid newspapers with a range of negative qualities. These include a propensity for sensationalism, populism, prurience, voyeurism, vulgarity, and over-simplification, peddling gossip instead of news, and substituting serious fourth-estate purpose with loud headlines, more advertisements, news bites, big pictures, celebrities, undraped women's bodies and sport.

This creeping process of tabloidization has been criticised for infecting other media, such as the "tabloid television" of commercial news and current affairs. It has also registered in the rise of the Internet, with august broadsheet newspaper mastheads accused of offering the worst forms of "link-bait" manipulation and "churnalism", rushing to put out unsubstantiated or inaccurate stories as slaves to speed and a 'publish now, fix up later' routine.

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Indeed, several academic content analyses (including an Australian study that I have conducted) demonstrate that the broadsheets have in some respects themselves become progressively "trivial and tabloid", offering many more insubstantial stories, replacing news and analysis with opinion, and engaging in "soft news" gossip and lifestyle chatter in a desperate attempt to maintain sales and circulation. This material, replicated on tablets and smart phones, represents for the media's harsher critics the final capitulation to tabloidization.

There are, though, alternative views from those who regard this lament for a loss broadsheet age as a smokescreen for cultural elitism. The tabloids, they contend, might be rough, ready and rude, but are more entertaining and socially inclusive than the high-minded, self-important insider talk of the broadsheets. From this perspective, to find the tabloids repellent reveals a distaste for their hoi polloi readership, which considerably outnumbers that of the more prestigious newspapers.

This position has lost some ground since the phone-hacking scandal in the UK and the closure of the quintessential tabloid News of the World. It must also confront the inescapable irony that the editors and reporters of the 'red tops' are usually upper-middle class graduates simulating what they take to be working-class speech, while falling tabloid circulation and sales are often proportionately sharper than for the broadsheets in recent years.

The newly tabloid Sydney Morning Herald and Age are now involved as never before in these debates about what constitutes a quality press. From my interviews with professional newspaper journalists it is apparent that many of them have worked in both newspaper formats, but that there is a generally accepted hierarchy that places the broadsheets above the tabloids in the journalistic order.

Given that "we are all tabloid now", Australian print journalists and their readers are forced to confront the collapse of a familiar, value-laden distinction. It will be intriguing to watch whether promoting universal "compact" newspapers will render long-established negative meanings of the "tabloid" obsolete, or bring them to the fore with renewed rhetorical vigour.

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About the Author

David Rowe is Professor of Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney, and author of Global Media Sport (Bloomsbury, 2011) and Sport Beyond Television (with Brett Hutchins, Routledge, 2012).

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