MEDIA ANALYSIS FORUM: Is the revamp enough to boost The Times’ sales? And will the tabloid section attract the right sort of reader? Alasdair Reid investigates

The redesign of The Times unveiled last Monday is the most significant development in the look of the paper since classified ads were bumped off the front page to make way for news in the 60s.

The redesign of The Times unveiled last Monday is the most

significant development in the look of the paper since classified ads

were bumped off the front page to make way for news in the 60s.



You could argue that this points to admirable stability and that, in an

uncertain world, The Times is one of the few reliable media

landmarks.



But the truth is that this most traditional of newspapers now inhabits a

paradoxical universe. Of all the broadsheets, the content of The Times

has actually changed the most in recent memory, moving under Rupert

Murdoch’s proprietorship from the stuffy journal read by bishops and

barristers to a paper designed to appeal to aspirational Middle

England.



Of all the quality papers, The Times has been by far the most

volatile.



This is almost entirely down to the doomsday scenario outlined by

Murdoch almost a decade ago. Back then, Murdoch forecast that there

would eventually be only one title in each of the three market sectors -

red tops, mid market and broadsheet - and that being number two by

circulation meant obliteration in the long term.



Thus the circulation wars of the 90s ensued when The Times tried to

overtake The Telegraph by means of cover price cuts. But The Telegraph

held solid at around one million even when The Times’ circulation was

peaking at around 700,000 in 1996. Since that high-water mark, The

Times’ sales have been ebbing at the rate of about 4 per cent a

year.



By anyone else’s reckoning, The Times would be a proud success, but by

its own yardstick it’s a failure. Its desperate tilt at The Telegraph

depended on tactics that were too expensive to be maintained and didn’t

encourage loyalty.



Is that what the redesign is all about? The biggest innovation is the

introduction of Times 2, a tabloid arts and features second section.

And, like The Guardian’s G2 tabloid second section, it will incorporate

themed recruitment and classified-driven supplements.



What does all of this do for The Times as a brand and how should it be

assessed within Murdoch’s pessimistic predictions? Caroline Simpson, the

press director of Zenith Media, states: ’The Times has been accused of

becoming lightweight in recent years. A return to a single weekday

broadsheet section should pacify a number of the traditionalists and

there is no doubt that this is a user-friendly redesign. Although

comparisons will be made between The Guardian’s G2 and The Times’ new

tabloid section, it’s a smart move - invariably readers don’t have the

time to consume the entire paper in one sitting. However, it would

appear at this stage that The Times is ignoring the opportunity to

attract younger female readers through the tabloid. And there is little

change from the advertiser perspective.



There’s more colour available in the tabloid but this is not where the

demand lies.’



Steve Goodman, the press director of MediaCom TMB, says: ’From our

perspective there have been restrictions on colour - they do need more

facility in that area. Clients want more flexibility in terms of colour

sites and this certainly gives them that. I think we’ve all been

impressed with what we’ve seen. The Times seems to have done its

homework - research probably revealed that the tabloid second section is

a good model irrespective of who did it first. It will not alienate

existing Times readers but it might stimulate trial and allow it to hold

on to the sort of reader who is used to having a tabloid second

section.



’But this alone won’t lead it to world domination. It’s true that things

have gone a bit quiet on that front. When they came to see us they

certainly weren’t talking about their plans in that direction. I’d be

surprised though if they didn’t have significant ambitions for the

paper.’



There were lots of rumours floating around last week that Times

Newspapers might again be tempted to flirt with aggressive promotions

allied to the new look. Tim McCloskey, a managing partner of OMD, points

out that The Times is backed by impressive resources: it continues to

hire the best journalists, commands impressive editorial resources and

could well have an impressive war chest. He comments: ’The latest set of

innovations are very much an architectural job. The Times will put the

business and sports section back into main news and create a standalone

tabloid second section of features, commentary and arts. I don’t think

it is likely to fail, but what concerns me is the readership profile

that these changes may deliver. The separate business section has helped

the paper maintain an upscale profile and gave The Times a business

credibility that its non-pink rivals were unable to match. Dumping this

section, while making the paper more populist, could weaken its profile.

After all, if we wanted aspiring Daily Mail readers we could buy the

Daily Mail.’



Steve Anderson, a managing partner at Walker Media, is more confident

about the potential benefits: ’The format changes do resemble The

Guardian but this is no bad thing. The tabloid second sections tend to

have a female bias - The Times has the lowest female profile of the four

main qualities, The Guardian has the highest. The conclusion? Help grow

circulation by gaining more female readers. It’s a sound principle and

where better to get fresh editorial ideas than from a newspaper that has

a good female readership and consistent sales?’



Anderson thinks concentrating news and sport in one section is a return

to conventional broadsheet virtues, but says: ’Adding a review-style

tabloid section gives The Times a much-welcomed freshness, but I doubt

whether this alone will recoup the sales losses of the mid to late 90s.

However, it may just be sufficient to give it some level of stability.’



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