Fairfax shrinks in size, shrinks from hard decisions

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.