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Fairfax shrinks in size, shrinks from hard decisions

The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald today managed the long-anticipated shrink to a tabloid format without any major loss of dignity. No shrill DIRTY ROTTEN CHEATS headlines or the like (100 drug probes…

The Age has gone tabloid, but missed an opportunity to be brave. AAP/Julian Smith

The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald today managed the long-anticipated shrink to a tabloid format without any major loss of dignity.

No shrill DIRTY ROTTEN CHEATS headlines or the like (100 drug probes launched. All major sports involved!) that regularly greet us from the front of Rupert Murdoch’s papers. No MAD DOG HUNT screamers about sex offenders on the loose or CHAOS, WHAT CHAOS? accompanied by images of a smiley Kevin and a stern Julia.

Instead, it was staid old business as usual for Fairfax’s flagship newspapers as they sedately switched from broadsheet to what the publisher, in European parlance, prefers to call a “compact” format for their Monday to Friday editions.

A shame, really.

The change of format was the perfect opportunity for Fairfax to inject some energy into its product while maintaining adherence to sound news values.

Unfortunately, the tone of The Age’s front page today is so lacking in confidence and life-force that it might as well have gone into caps with DO NOT RESUSCITATE.

There might be some folk gathered today around some water-cooler in some building having an animated chat about whether it was a jammed end connection or lightning that caused the Kilmore-East power line to fail, with tragic consequences, on February 7, 2009.

They might also be asking each other if they’ve seen the washed out image of a power pole that The Age chose as its seminal image for March 4, 2013.

But I doubt it.

In shrinking its two major metropolitan dailies, Fairfax seems paralysed by fear of the popular notion that broadsheets are up-market and tabloids are for the low-brow. This nervousness can largely be attributed to the widespread disdain essentially serious folk have for the sex, sleaze and sensationalism of Murdoch’s “red-top” UK tabloids.

What Fairfax fails to take into account is that sophisticated news consumers are aware that size doesn’t matter when it comes to serious journalistic content.

Fairfax’s tabloid-sized Australian Financial Review, for example, is a world away from the German broadsheet Bild’s popular mix of bare breasts, celebrity gossip and ultra-conservative political rhetoric.

But what the AFR and Bild have in common are confidence and strong senses of identity, qualities that currently appear under threat at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, particularly so at The Age.

It might be unwise to judge a book by its cover or a newspaper by its size, but any paper’s front page tells us all we need to know about its remit. The front page is what sells papers.

Fairfax’s biggest mistake today was not breaking free from the old “dull but worthy” cliché in the face it presents to readers.

In Melbourne, the Herald Sun had it all over The Age with SECRET TAPES BOMBSHELL, a story revealing how, despite Premier Ted Baillieu’s public reassurances to the contrary, his chief of staff had provided succour to a disgraced former advisor to the Police Minister.

And, of course, Herald Sun readers were offered a free footy DVD. Beat that!

The Sydney Morning Herald managed the switch to tabloid better than The Age. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

The Sydney Morning Herald did slightly better than The Age with a rosy-hued silhouette shot of morning joggers heralding “A new dawn” (which could just as easily been captioned “A new yawn”) and a catchy story about the allegedly “catastrophic” fire threat on Sydney’s trains – apparently a key adviser on fire safety has reversed his recommendation to government on the need for new ventilation shafts in train tunnels.

The damnable thing is, get beyond the underwhelming front pages and the content of Fairfax’s new little papers is rich with well-presented, solid reporting on a wide range of issues.

The lift-out section Pulse covers health, science and something called “personal well being”. It’s a good read. Likewise The Guide provides lively and comprehensive television coverage.

Sport has wisely been shifted from the back of Business Day to the back of the paper itself.

Arts enthusiasts must wait until later in the week to see if their interests will be adequately catered for. This is one field where Fairfax must establish a clear point of difference with its down-market, celebrity-obsessed competitors.

It is to be hoped the overall standard that we’ve seen today can be maintained in light of the increasing pressure on Fairfax’s remaining staff. (Crikey last week reported on a leaked email that reveals Sydney Morning Herald weekday editor Richard Woolveridge has advised his “battle-hardened” staff they’ll be expected to generate up to three times the stories to “satisfy the compact’s daily appetite”.)

The crucial question is whether the change of format will be sufficient to seduce new readers (and advertisers) and keep existing ones.

If Fairfax can harness some front-page “Read All About It!” chutzpah and maintain today’s overall journalistic quality, it will deserve to survive and thrive.

That, readers, is a big if.

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10 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    A curious mix of old and new isn't it? Like a bonsaied broadsheet rather than a tabloid proper - even the re-assuring dial of Ross Gittins suggesting there's something inside worth reading. Betcha Gittins never envisaged himself as a marketing ploy.. a bit of wiggling reader bait.

    Broadsheet serif typefaces and headlines long enough to be the whole first par of a true tabloid. Looks like a printed identity crisis to me.

    I eagerly await Ross's first appearance sans shirt on page three. Hubba hubba!

  2. George Michaelson


    berliner? I think you can tell they have few options due to money, because they seem to have gone directly to the cheapest physical print option skipping all the alternate broadsheet-like sizes some of us like to read..

  3. Tim Scanlon


    Newspapers? Isn't that what old people read to see when the sales are on at Target?

    1. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      I think a newspaper is the thing that they used to wrap fish and chips in. Also useful for starting a log fire during winter. Neither require any financial outlay though - someone chucks one on my driveway once a week.

  4. John C Smith


    My mate on the park bench is in trouble during the coming climate change period. Hope it stays hot and hot, otherwise he will be without his broad sheet that coversd him from cold weather. The ABC says Age and SMH is gone compact and looks like major authors and journalists also gone tabloidett. Malcom has forgotten about the fourty million refugees around the world and he can only see and hear the ones at his door. There are lot of other people who are people who got more problrms than Gina. The poor BMW has not gone compact but bigger.

  5. Bill Barnes

    Business Analyst

    What about the cover price sleight-of-hand? Recently the price jumped from $1.70 to $2.00 (a huge 17.6%) and now we have a smaller paper for the same price.

  6. Dianna Arthur


    I cannot quite comprehend how, on the very first week of publication of the new smaller Fairfax papers, the H/Sun managed to present some of the most newsworthy news since... there memory fails me.

    Actual tapes that reveal a nasty stench in the Baillieu government, real journalism no less and for once not in favour of their (Murdoch's) conservative mates.


    Mustn't forget the Footy DVD of course.

  7. Trevor Kerr


    It's more than Fairfax staff having to "generate up to three times the stories", plus the shrinking of the turf left for print, and consequent intensified competition.
    The majors have it stuck in their nostrils that the Coalition is assured of being in government pretty soon. So, why risk getting up a Lib-Nat nose if being "impertinent" now means reduced access?
    Mark my words, we'll see more of Howard, Costello & several other superannuated Lib-Nats popping up for soft exposures on ABC with Chris U, well before Sept.

    1. Dianna Arthur


      In reply to Trevor Kerr

      Must fasten my seat-belt it's gonna be a long winter.

      On ABC radio this morning reports regarding Tony & Julia taking swipes at each other regarding 457 visas/ workers. ABC only broadcast TA's actual speech, whereas the Prime Minister's speech was ignored rather than aired for a reasonable comparison as to who was being more "racist" than whom. The ABC told us what the PM was reputed to have said.

      Fair and Balanced? Only if you have the IQ of a RWN.

      Just pathetic.