Media Forum: Should the Telegraph shrink?

Following its latest ABCs, should the Telegraph go compact, Alasdair Reid asks.

Big is beautiful - as Martin Newland, The Daily Telegraph's then editor, reminded us when he relaunched the title back in October. He was, of course, underlining the fact that, even if it was revamping, his newspaper was remaining unapologetically broadsheet.

A lot has happened since then. Newland, for instance, has departed, and the creeping staff replacement scheme being pursued by the paper's owners, the Barclay brothers, continues.

And we've had yet more reminders that, although many large things in newspapers may prove nice to look at, the most beautiful things of all are the most abstract. They're called numbers.

But where sales figures are concerned, it has been a dismal few months for the medium - and the most striking of a bunch of poor performers in the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures was The Daily Telegraph.

It has now dipped below 900,000 for the first time since the Victorian era. This, as the industry cliche has it, is a psychologically important barrier.

There are theories aplenty about the Telegraph's continued poor performance.

But perhaps the answer to the mystery of its disappearing sale is to be found in the announcements columns and on the obituaries page. Even the younger contributors to its letters page seem deeply depressed by their misfortune at being alive in the 21st century - where things just aren't what they were. But where do they, and their newspaper of choice, go from here?

Katie Vanneck, the marketing director of the Telegraph Group, points out that the paper's sale actually declined less than the market average and that it stays comfortably ahead of The Times. She states: "The Daily Telegraph continues to be the UK's most popular quality newspaper. It maintains such a strong position by providing our readers with top-quality news, when and where they want it - in the paper, on our website, via podcasts, or through our innovative on-the-go service.

"All that is great news for our advertisers - who have access to a premium audience of almost 1.9 million high-spending ABC1 readers each day in the paper (according to the National Readership Survey), more than nine million daily users on our website, 38,000 podcasts downloaded since Christmas 2005 and 4,600 people who've signed up to our BlackBerry on-the-go service."

That, Vanneck states, is why the paper will remain the market-leader - but she refuses to be drawn on format issues.

One way or another, it has to change now, though, doesn't it? Alison Brolls, the global marketing and media manager at Nokia, doesn't think so. She agrees that being the market-leader is still important. She says: "Let's not lose sight of the fact that the Telegraph is still the UK's highest-selling quality daily by an easy stretch, selling on average more than 40 per cent more copies than its nearest rival, The Times.

"For me, the challenges facing print are far deeper than simply resorting to a change of clothes. Providing genuinely enthralling content for all readers, especially the young, as well as recognising the true power of online, digital and other faster, more current routes to news channels are major issues that all newspapers, not just the Telegraph, need to tackle."

Simon Mathews, a partner at Rise Communications, agrees with much of that - apart from the central issue about format. He explains: "It's true that the whole newspaper industry faces enormous challenges to its basic business models. But the Telegraph, in particular, has such a strong set of brand values in terms of its journalistic strengths and its clearly delineated sense of where it sits in terms of the readership it appeals to.

"I don't think it would be a problem to repackage the product in a way that continues to reflect those values. Meanwhile, repackaging is a fantastic way of creating reappraisal. So, yes, I think it's inevitable it has to grasp that nettle."

Paul Thomas, a managing partner at MindShare, agrees that many structural challenges faced by the industry are coming to a head. He concludes: "Print formats are important but there are equally important questions to be faced. For instance, many newspapers are very successful on the web but they continue to give it away for free. Newspapers are incredibly powerful brands but they need to reassess how they distribute what they do and how they get paid for that. I think they are still too hung up on looking at success and failure in purely circulation terms."

NOT SAYING - Katie Vanneck, marketing director, Telegraph Group

"In the December ABCs, we actually outperformed the rest of the market, which, as a whole, was down. In the next year, we'll continue to stay ahead of the game - responding to the needs of our customers."

NO - Alison Brolls, global marketing and media manager, Nokia

"Going compact would be jumping on the bandwagon and perhaps the Telegraph is right to believe that the broadsheet format delivers a unique selling proposition as the only daily quality newspaper in this size."

YES - Simon Mathews, partner, Rise Communications

"If your only point of differentiation is that you're the last person doing something in an old-fashioned way, that's not really a useful point of differentiation, is it? There's a feeling they're just being slow to react."

YES - Paul Thomas, managing partner, MindShare

"It doesn't have to go tabloid - it could change format and stay distinctive as The Guardian has managed to do - but it should certainly move to a smaller size. I think the ABC figures show that people like smaller formats."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haynet.com.