U.K. paper follows rivals into tabloid format : At The Times, size matters

LONDON: With their screaming headlines and Page 3 girls, Britain's tabloid newspapers long ago lost their power to shock. Still, even a few jaded Londoners must have raised their eyebrows at the arrival of a new tabloid quoting from the Most Noble Order of the Garter.

The Order is Britain's highest chivalric honor, and its motto — Honi soit qui mal y pense, or "shamed be those who think evil of it," in medieval French — appears atop The Times of London, the country's most tradition-rich broadsheet. When the paper started its own tabloid-size edition late last month, it kept the slogan in its place of honor on a considerably smaller Page 1.

What was the staid Times, first published in 1785 as the Daily Universal Register, doing venturing into tabloid-land?

Though newspaper readership in Britain remains relatively high, the industry here faces the same challenges as in many other countries: Readers are aging, and people are increasingly getting their news from other sources, including television and the Internet, or not bothering at all.

Two months ago, The Independent, which has the smallest circulation of Britain's national papers, stole a march on its larger rivals, introducing a tabloid-size version to be sold alongside the original, broadsheet edition. Now The Times has joined the battle with its own smaller version, also sold along with the broadsheet.

Both The Independent and The Times insist that their new editions are "compact," not "tabloid"— that is, don't expect Page 3 girls to appear soon.

The news content in both the compact Independent and The Times is virtually identical to that of the broadsheet versions, reconfigured for the different size, and offered at the same price.

The moves have raised the stakes in the battle for readers in Britain, where circulation wars used to be fought with price cuts, news scoops and marketing promotions. Perhaps more important, The Times and The Independent have blurred a traditional size-based distinction between the so-called quality broadsheets and the lower-brow tabloids.

"The British newspaper market is the most competitive and creative in the world," Robert Thomson, editor of The Times, said in an interview. "You always have to be looking at ways of improving your offer to readers."

The move by The Times and The Independent is slightly different from the approach taken by a number of American newspapers, which have started free editions aimed at younger audiences. Giveaway publications for commuters have sprung up throughout Europe, too. A Sweden-based company publishes free papers called Metro in more than 25 cities around the world, and a Norwegian company has introduced rival papers called 20 Minutes in several cities. In London, a separate Metro is published by the company that owns The Daily Mail, one of the best-selling British tabloids.

There are some signs that the new strategy is working. The Times — is owned by News Corp., which also publishes Britain's biggest-selling tabloid, the Sun — had aimed to print 140,000 copies of the compact edition last week, up from 75,000 in the first week; in October, The Times sold 589,000 copies a day of its broadsheet paper, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The circulation of The Independent, meanwhile, rose by 7.5 percent, to 198,000, in October, the first full month during which the compact edition was sold alongside the regular paper, even though the smaller version was only available in the London area; now it is being extended to other parts of Britain.

The Independent is owned by Independent News & Media, a company headed by the Irish media magnate Tony O'Reilly.

The apparent success has raised speculation that other broadsheets may soon start tabloid-size editions of their own.

Among conservative readers, the Times has long been playing catch-up with the Telegraph, published by Hollinger International. With the recent resignation of that company's chief executive, Conrad Black, amid questions over payments made to him, the Times apparently saw a chance to steal some ground on the Telegraph.

The Telegraph has said it is considering the option of a tabloid edition and has prepared a mock-up for one, though analysts say it is unlikely that the company would jump in immediately, given the speculation that some Hollinger titles may be sold.

The move by the left-leaning Independent, meanwhile, could put pressure on its main broadsheet rival, the much bigger Guardian, which says it is also considering a tabloid.

"Obviously, all options are open, and we're watching with interest," said Shaun Williams, director of corporate affairs for Guardian Newspapers, which publishes the Guardian six days a week and the Observer on Sundays.

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