A sharper new look for The Guardian, but revenue strains may remain
A view from Steve Goodman

A sharper new look for The Guardian, but revenue strains may remain

Design changes alone will not be enough to save The Guardian, writes Steve Goodman, managing director of print trading at Group M UK.

"The Guardian goes tabloid."

This headline, out of context, would strike a chord of outrage amongst the majority of The Guardian true-bloods.

However, the evolution of newspapers moving from broadsheet to tabloid is well established, and one by one, newspapers have made the transformation. And this is not just the preserve of the so called quality newspapers. Both the Daily Mail and the Daily Express changed to tabloid format in the 1970s, with the News of the World changing in 1984. The Times and The Independent, meanwhile, made the transformation in 2003.

This morning, The Guardian launched its new tabloid version describing itself as a ‘space for ideas’. It certainly looks sharper, with the use of a new font called "Guardian Headline". The masthead is bolder, and generally the paper feels more colourful. The G2 section remains, but is wrapped within a new section called Journal. Overall, the paper just feels more modern, however, the loss of the front page solus and outside back cover will put some strain on the sales teams to recover that revenue.

Transformation is not a new concept for The Guardian, which announced in the Autumn of 2005 that it was changing from broadsheet to a completely unique format for the UK, the "Berliner", the advertising industry were no less stunned than The Guardian’s own readers. This size, sitting somewhere between a broadsheet and a tabloid, was a bold, but exciting move, and typical of The Guardian taking a somewhat radical approach.

The format was being used extensively across Europe at the time, and indeed, made some sense as a format that would maintain that element of quality inherent in the larger formats, while being easier to manipulate and read than a standard broadsheet. It added an element of exclusivity, innovation, and modernity.  

However, it had the potential to give media planners a headache. Advertising campaigns were put together using relatively standard formats, but The Guardian just did not conform to those formats. With the potential of being excluded from schedules as a result, the sales teams, under the stewardship of Carolyn McCall (the very same Dame now set to lead ITV into the future media landscape), worked tirelessly to ensure a seamless transition, and generally succeeded.  

With an investment of some £80m into a new printing plant and presses, it was essential nothing would fall through the cracks. At this point, circulation had been waning at just over 340,000. Following the change, circulation leapt up to over 400,000, a clear indication that readers liked what they saw, and advertising revenue followed.

Expenditure follows eyeballs

Leap forward another decade (and a bit), and the media landscape has been turned on its head. Newspaper publishers have been struggling to compete for digital revenues, despite incredible content, as expenditure migrates to the two behemoths known as Google and Facebook. And this revenue has followed eyeballs, as newspaper circulations have also taken a pounding, with The Guardian’s own figures now at just under 150,000.  

The case for the printed product remains strong, with the excellent trusted editorial environments, longer dwell times within this long-form content, proven returns on investment and impact on brand building. Unfortunately, the negativity surrounding publishers has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with declines in revenues far exceeding the changes in coverage across all of the platforms newspapers have to offer. In fact, over the last few years we have been seeing growth in that total coverage, with better combined reach of all adults by newspapers than Google can offer.

While steering a course through this somewhat bleak backdrop, many publishers have looked to make savings where possible. The lowest hanging fruit here might seem to be staff, both from the pool of journalists, and advertising sales teams and management, but that in turn would potentially result in more loss of readers, and a more open goal for the Facebooks of this world. The Guardian, however, has the opportunity to make significant savings by changing its format once again. The time is right to do that now.

Moving to a traditional tabloid format today has none of the inherent downmarket connotations it once had. Broadsheets are now the exception. As retailers have more space pressures, display of a Berliner is just not as feasible as it once was, and The Guardian will have greater standout in its new format.  

The reboot also allows the editor to review the layout and flow of the paper, giving it a fresh appeal to existing readers, while hopefully attracting new and lapsed readers. The font is being updated to a sharp new version called "Guardian headline", making it easier on the eye, both in print and digital formats, and of course, the complex conversions of formats from standard tabloid or broadsheet to Berliner can now be put behind us, potentially putting The Guardian on an even playing field, and allowing them to clearly demonstrate their competitive position to advertising agencies and clients.  

It looks like we will see further investment in photo-journalism, an area The Guardian has always excelled at, and in the printed format, the opportunity to present images in a bolder way that is just impossible online.

These changes, in isolation, however, are not enough. A new approach to selling the medium is long overdue. The launch of AMP data this year (Audience Measurement for Publishers) which will allow media planners to consider the combined coverage of very specific audiences across all the platforms publishers have to offer is an exciting development, and one which plays well into the hands of The Guardian specifically, with their incredibly robust digital presence.  

AMP data may enable a new trading currency to materialise, and if publishers can work more closely together and with their agency buying counterparts, the opportunity arises to plan and buy more efficiently, providing clients with better results, with it being less of an administrative burden on agencies.

The potential is now for The Guardian, along with all of the other news brand publishers, but that nettle must be grasped swiftly.