MEDIA: FORUM - Will the tabloid Indie sell more copies?

What does the industry think of The Independent's latest tabloid venture? Is it just a gimmick, Alasdair Reid asks.

It's only in the UK, as The Independent's editor, Simon Kelner, is so fond of pointing out these days, that the word "tabloid" carries such negative overtones. He's right. Around the world there are hundreds of examples of quality (well-written, with aspirations to objectivity and reliability) newspapers printed on A3-size pages. On the other hand, it remains true that almost all of the world's truly great prestige newspapers remain adamantly broadsheet.

In short, The Independent's latest initiative is a risk in anyone's money.

Brand values, and possibly much more, are on the line as it begins offering the paper in two parallel formats - tabloid and "classic brand" broadsheet - in a test area within the M25. The contents are identical (though the layouts are rejigged: it's not just a photo-reduction job) as is the 60p cover price.

The initiative is backed by a £3 million marketing campaign including a TV-led ad campaign through Walsh Trott Chick Smith and by a substantial investment on the production side. This is no nine-day wonder.

The gamble is that the tabloid will attract new readers without cannibalising the traditional broadsheet sale. Lawrie Procter, the commercial director of The Independent, believes new readers will come from a number of sources.

He states: "First, commuters. The convenience factor is important. The interesting thing is that The Guardian and The Times as well as ourselves have launched tabloid sections, with the presumption perhaps that people will read the tabloid section on the train and the main news section when they get to work. But does it happen that way? After all, people buy newspapers primarily for news. A tabloid will be of interest to younger readers. Women in particular express an interest in reading a quality tabloid."

Is this an idea whose time has come? Can the tabloid become a fashion statement - attracting the cachet and badge values that The Independent originally had when it launched in the 80s?

James Kydd, the brand director of Virgin Mobile, thinks it's eminently possible: "I can't believe it's their long-term intention (to keep both formats running parallel) but testing it is a good idea. It's a way of keeping broadsheet lovers happy for a while. The point, though, is that The Independent is nowhere at the moment and it needs innovations. It was about time that they did something. In advertising terms, I can't see any creative or strategic problems at all. My only fear is that, editorially, they might lose some of the quality art direction and the pictorial brilliance that we have come to expect."

Mark Gallagher, the head of press at Manning Gottlieb OMD, says that innovation is great not just for The Independent but for the newspaper business as a whole. "It will cause a stir," he argues. "People need reasons for taking another look a newspapers."

But there are potentially troublesome downsides that must be addressed urgently, Gallagher adds. "Are they carrying front-page ads, for instance?

The dummies haven't carried one. Will they succeed in getting a single ABC figure across both formats? Likewise, have they addressed that same issue as regards the NRS? And it will be interesting to see how they deal with the issue of advertising formats. How different is a page in the broadsheet compared with a page in the tabloid? Buyers, as ever, will be looking for value."

Are rival media owners worried? Carolyn McCall, the managing director of Guardian Newspapers, comments: "They're bound to get a lot of early sampling, but a simple formulaic change is not enough to stem long-term decline. It's no secret that it is sustained editorial investment and marketing that attracts new readers and retains existing readers, and that's going to be their key challenge - after all, The Independent has been chronically starved of proper investment for years."

Len Sanderson, the managing director of sales at the Telegraph Group, says he can appreciate the theory behind the move: "As regards commuters, it's certainly a market they can legitimately go for. But it would be stretching it somewhat to see Telegraph readers switching to The Independent.

Editorially, they are just not close enough. Even with The Times and The Guardian that seems to me to be wishful thinking. And if we're looking at trading up, I can't for instance see Daily Mail readers having the appetite for a newspaper with the dense sort of read you'll get when you compress a broadsheet into a tabloid size. I think the question will be more about the proportion of the normal Independent sale it takes up."

- "Independent research shows that we are the paper that benefits more than the other qualities when people trade up from the mid-market titles. Proportionately, we put on a bigger sale than the rest when there is a really big story running." - Lawrie Procter commercial director, The Independent

- "I can see why they are basing their arguments on how difficult it is to read a broadsheet paper on the Tube but I don't think it's their best selling point. People can actually fold newspapers. I'm not sure that's why they choose to buy the newspaper they buy." - James Kydd brand director, Virgin Mobile

- "There are those who are currently reading a broadsheet because they don't want to be seen reading a tabloid. From what we've seen of the dummies they have absolutely no intention of using this as an excuse to dumb down." - Mark Gallagher head of press, Manning Gottlieb OMD - "It's an innovation and it's radical and they certainly shouldn't be condemned for that. The problem with being a pioneer sometimes, though, is that pioneers are the ones who get arrows in their back and it's the ones who come after who prosper." - Len Sanderson managing director, sales, Telegraph Group.

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