Telegraph can only benefit from Times going fully compact

Max Hastings, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph, once said that the majority of letters from readers were composed by people who are 'not entirely sane', writes Ian Darby.

In that case, The Times' editor, Robert Thomson, shouldn't worry about some of the anti-compact venom exhibited on his paper's letters page this week following its decision to drop its broadsheet format.

"I feel sad at a change which robs The Times of its civilised spaciousness," Francis Bennion of Budleigh Salterton opined. "Good God! I shall never get over this. Time for a snifter or two," John Walker of Norwich raged.

In reality, Times Newspapers was never going to let the outmoded feelings of a minority of its readers (less than 30 per cent of its audience were clinging to the broadsheet by the end) get in the way of a hard business decision.

The costs of printing a compact and broadsheet in tandem were prohibitive, dealing with media agencies was complicated and the title's position in the market was unclear.

And while The Times has bucked the downward circulation trend in the newspaper market, its sales increases since the compact launch have not been as spectacular as The Independent's. Its September sales were up 4.5 per cent year on year to 660,906, but the word was that Rupert Murdoch wasn't entirely happy with its performance.

In the UK for a week in mid-September, mainly to finalise plans for a relocation of print facilities away from Wapping, Murdoch is also said to have asked some searching questions about the dual-format Times and reiterated his desire to take it wholly compact.

His executives have acted fairly swiftly and now, less than a year after the compact Times launched, there is no going back. The question now is how will The Telegraph respond?

Judging by Monday's edition, and its massive coverline declaring "The best in broadsheet journalism", The Telegraph will, initially at least, attempt to make a virtue of its broadsheet format. It has pumped presentations out into the market to convince media buyers that sales of compact editions have failed to dent its circulation (despite its September sales falling by 3.8 per cent to 900,702). It is also using National Readership Survey figures to claim that its AB readership has increased while The Times' has fallen.

Telegraph executives are also hoping that high levels of loyalty and pre-paid subscriptions (310,006 of its circulation) will insulate it against the compact revolution. It might also hope to pick up a few sales from disgruntled Times readers from Budleigh Salterton who prize format over content.

For what it's worth, I think The Telegraph should stick to its broadsheet guns - thus providing a strong point of difference in the market, an alternative for the compact refusniks and a broadsheet canvas for advertisers.

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