UNTIL the late 19th century, pharmacists made up their own medicines – in powders with pestle and mortar and with liquids. Then an invention to compress graphite to make better pencils was applied to medicines and little pills resulted. Pharmacists called them tabloids.
They came in small, compressed pieces and were easy to swallow.
Small wonder, then, that the term was applied late to newspapers when they cut their halved size.
The Daily Mirror was the first in Britain, in 1934. It turned the broadsheet 90 degrees and cut it in half to produce the tabloid.
The word “tabloid” has been applied to both the size of the paper and the style of journalism that came with it — going for the sensational and cutting articles to the bare essentials to appeal to a mass market.
But the sensational “tabloid” journalism was being sold well before the “tabloid” format had been adopted. Others quickly followed the Mirror’s move to the tabloid size, and the commuters loved it.
Indeed, the market for a newspaper and economics generally have always been more important than its size in determining its style of journalism.
This week’s change in size by the two main Fairfax titles (The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age) will no doubt prove the point.
They will not go for the huge headlines. Huge headlines were designed to appeal to a commuter at a railway station deciding which among many newspapers to chose from. The larger and more sensational the headline, the more likely it would attract readers from a competitor.
There will be no need for The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald to do that.
So why in the past have some newspaper titles stayed broadsheet (roughly A2) and others moved to half that size (roughly A3)?
(Incidentally, in the A system of paper sizes, A1 — two broadsheet pages attached as you see in this newspaper — is one square metre in area, with long and the short sides having a ratio. The ratio is one – the short side — to the square root of two – the long side). When cut in half, the cut side becomes the new long side and the new short side is half the old long side. And the ratio between the new long and short sides is – yes – one to the square root of two. You can keep on turning the paper 90 degrees and cutting it in half to A3, A4, A5 and so on but the ratio of the sides always remains the same – one to the square root of two. Very convenient for publishers. But I digress.)
Newspapers initially liked to be as large as could reasonably be handled. This is because if you cut the broadsheet in half to two tabloid pages, you lose the white space that forms the spine between the tabloid pages – called the gutter, in the trade.
Tabloids, obviously, have more gutters than broadsheets!
When you have a newspaper jam packed with classified advertisements, that space is of great economic significance.
Further, in the 1970s and 1980s the economic difference between broadsheet and tabloid became more pronounced because of badge advertising – full-page advertisements saying Qantas is terrific, Telstra is best, and so on. Those advertisers paid according to the column centimetre, so they paid more for their one-page broadsheet advertisement than a one-page tabloid size one. And there was no point taking two tabloid advertisements -– you only want to hit the reader with the message once.
Badge advertising was especially significant in the late 1970s and early 1980s when cigarette advertisements were banned on TV and radio, but not in print.
So these two streams of revenue meant newspaper executives, time and time again, resisted their readers’ pleas for a more manageable size paper.
Now swathes of single-column, small classified ads have gone to the internet. And badge advertising is not so big in print. So the move to fit in with readers’ desires makes more sense. Keeping readers happy (in print and on line) is more important than ever for publishers.
Existing newspaper companies will want to continue to be dominant players in providing journalism to the public, whether in print or online.
Fairfax and News Ltd have made it abundantly clear that their content, quite reasonably, will not all be put on the net for free access forever.
In a way, this will be the salvation for quality journalism. Who will be willing to pay for a subscription to an online newspaper? — The people who want serious journalism. Those whose consumption of journalism comprises hits on the bizarre (“Alien Stole My Grandma”) or celebs (“Kate’s new pregnancy trauma”) or hyperventilating sport (Aussie cricket triumph/debacle”) are not in the same chunk of cyberspace.
DOT DOT DOT
Speaking of sport, none of the in-the-pocket mainstream sports journalists mentioned even a whiff of the recent drugs and gambling scandal before it became public.
For once, the “proper authorities”, the Australian Crime Commission and the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, got there first. Usually, the “proper authorities” need investigative journalists to do the initial uncovering.
After the disclosures, and as the NRL and AFL start their seasons, it would be fair to ask why anyone with an ounce of brain would bother to watch any of it.
Geographical, tribal and familial loyalties have been irrelevant for more than 20 years and sport has become more to do with money than the game.
Teenage dreams of playing for XYZ team have been shattered by the draft, and the talented teenager is shunted to the highest bidder to stand bewildered in a blue jumper instead of the red jumper he had dreamed of.
Everything is money. And the betting and drugs scandals follow. The sportspeople are not sports players but people groomed for a paying occupation.
Yes, we should been enforcing the drug code and clamping down on rampant illegal gambling and the like, but two other equally important governmental actions should flow from the past month’s debacle.
Federal and state governments should withdraw all their financial support for the moneyed game and only give money to kids’ sport. Secondly, all sports students at the AIS and other sports institutes should be treated in the same way as other students seeking a job in a profession – pay HECS.
If it is good enough for a chef or a lawyer it should be good enough for a money-seeking, muscled-up sports careerist.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 9 March 2013.