MEDIA FORUM: Can the latest Times redesign win new readers? - A broadsheet main section incorporating all the news that’s fit to print, including sports and business. A second tabloid section for arts and features. Sounds a bit like The Guardian,

Please, no more The Times they are a-changing jokes. It’s true, of course, that makeovers of the Thunderer are not exactly frequent events - as Times Newspapers’ own press release points out, the redesign unveiled on 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. That happened in the 60s.

Please, no more The Times they are a-changing jokes. It’s true, of

course, that makeovers of the Thunderer are not exactly frequent events

- as Times Newspapers’ own press release points out, the redesign

unveiled on 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. That happened in the 60s.



You could, of course, argue that this all points to admirable stability

and that, in an uncertain world, The Times is one of the few reliable

media landmarks. But that, of course, wouldn’t exactly be true. The

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

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.



And of all the quality readership papers, the one travelling under the

lion and the unicorn logo 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’ sale has 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 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 doomsday scenario? 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 inevitably 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 at one sitting.



However, it would appear at this stage that The Times is ignoring the

opportunity to attract younger female readership through this new

tabloid.



And from the advertiser perspective there is little change. Yes, 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. They seem to have done their homework

well - their research probably told them 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 them to

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

section.



’But this alone won’t lead them 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 believe

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

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

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 of 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 reputation and consistent sales?’



Anderson believes that concentrating news and sport into one section is

a return to conventional broadsheet virtues. But he adds: ’Adding a

review-style tabloid section gives The Times a much-welcomed freshness,

but I doubt whether this alone will recoup the sales they experienced in

the mid to late 90s. However, it may just be sufficient to give it some

level of stability.’



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