Guardian tabloid needs more zing after low-key debut
A view from Gideon Spanier

Guardian tabloid needs more zing after low-key debut

Media buyers and industry insiders had faint praise for The Guardian's redesign and relaunch as a tabloid on its first day.

There are plenty of people willing The Guardian to succeed or, at least, to stem its decline in print circulation and huge financial losses, and redesigns always take time to settle down.

The Saturday edition, with five magazines, which sells twice as many as the weekday paper, will be chunky.

However, first impressions count and The Guardian’s tabloid debut on Monday following its move from Berliner size was underwhelming. There was a lacklustre front page and no great scoop or surprises.

Kath Viner, the editor-in-chief, pictured with today's edition, above, talked about the importance of "zing" and "imagination" in her letter to readers. There needs to be more of both.

That said, we can expect lots of improvement in the days and weeks ahead and The Guardian was careful not to ramp up expectations for day one.

Several things stand out about the new look:

Design and navigation

The double-decker, black masthead is oddly shaped, particularly for use online. However, the overall design and typography, devised by the in-house team with agency Commercial Type, is clean and colourful and modern compared to some of its monochrome, online rivals.

An art director at a rival publisher was underwhelmed, particularly by the front page, but praised the "discipline" and "consistency" in the new design.

Or as Emma Dibben, head of print brands and media partner engagement at Wavemaker UK, put it: "There is not much to dislike in the new tabloid version as you can really sense the design obsession which sits behind the new product.

"The whole package is very colourful while still allowing display ads sufficient standout. "

A new, pull-out comment section, The Journal, works okay in the centre of the paper but wasn’t radically different from before – bar the use of a grayish-pink background. The positioning of the leader columns half-way across a left-hand page lacked gravitas.

Making the G2 supplement bigger is good – it is tabloid-sized, rather than the awkward half-Berliner – but it was thin at only 16 pages.

Liam Mullins, managing partner at the7stars, said: "The synergy of look and feel across all of their platforms landed well across print, web and mobile, although I have to say, I miss the blue masthead. I understand that the colour blue may carry a premium at Trinity Mirror’s print works."

Editorial content

Mullins found the debut tabloid itself "a little flat" while a former national newspaper editor described it as "worthy, dull and under-resourced", adding: "I got through the paper quite fast – I got more out of The Times."

Little felt new or likely to win over younger readers in the tabloid, but Mondays are usually the toughest day  for news at the tail-end of the weekend.

A big interview with Michael Wolff, the author of Fire and Fury, did not exactly feel finger on the pulse. As Michelle Patrick, head of display advertising at Amplifi, noted, we have had more than 10 days of non-stop noise about the Trump book and it was serialised in The Times.

Still, we can be sure The Guardian, the paper that exposed phone-hacking and global tax avoidance in the Panama Papers, is readying a hard-hitting investigation or two, and perhaps it can be forgiven for not wanting to spook loyal readers with more radical changes on day one.

Advertising

DFS, Emirates, Vodafone, Aldi, Investec, NatWest and EE were among those that advertised in the 96-page paper but there are big challenges for the ad sales team which is facing a drop in print revenue.

There is no ad strip on the front page and no ad on the back page on weekdays – at least for now. 

The large photo of Liverpool’s epic victory over  Man City on the back page wasn’t so compelling that an ad strip would have spoiled it.

There were also zero ads in the 12-page The Journal, only one small ad at the bottom of the entertainment page (plus a full-page house ad) in G2's 16 pages, and no ads in the 20 pages of sport.

The tabloid is 40% smaller than the Berliner, which matters when ads are sold on size.

"We must reassess their impact and therefore value to our clients’ business," Patrick said, stressing that print doesn’t operate in isolation and she wants to see how the changes affect all of The Guardian's "consumer touchpoints".

One agency source estimates that the paper could suffer a 25% drop in its estimated £20m annual print ad revenue take, but The Guardian dismisses those fears.

The ad sales team, which first presented the tabloid to agencies in December, is hopeful that greater prominence for ads on the tabloid page, the continued flight to quality because of online brand safety, and perhaps a print circulation lift will minimise any hit.

In any case, a hypothetical drop of, say, £5m, might not be drastic in a business generating close to £200m a year and making bigger savings than that from going tabloid. 

The business strategy

Ditching the Berliner presses and outsourcing the printing to Trinity Mirror will save many millions of pounds a year – although not "tens" of millions.

The Guardian has said it remains committed to print, which still generates half of its turnover, thanks chiefly to cover price revenue – an enduring paradox when the paper won’t put up an online paywall and asks for voluntary contributions.

The big question about the tabloid is whether it can herald a print renaissance for The Guardian after the best part of a decade when it switched its focus to digital and its circulation halved to 147,000.

Rivals such as i, which launched in 2010 as a successful spin-off of the new defunct Independent print title,  and The Times have been able to seize the territory that The Guardian abdicated.

And, with a £2 cover price, The Guardian costs a lot more than the admittedly lightweight i at 60p and The Times on £1.60.

Viner, who previously ran The Guardian's digital-only operations in America and in Australia, knows that print itself is facing immense structural challenges.

On my 8.30am rail journey to Campaign’s office, I walked the length of the train to see what the 200 or so people were reading and watching.

Probably half were looking at electronic devices – mainly phones, although I spotted three e-readers, two tablets and one laptop.

There were also about 10 people reading or clutching copies of freesheet Metro.

How many were reading the new-look tabloid Guardian or any other paid-for newspaper? None.

Gideon Spanier is head of media at Campaign