Saturday, January 29, 2005

Ridder on tabloids

OK, so Tony Ridder has gone and uttered the "T" word - tabloid. As Reuters reported this week, Ridder, CEO of the half-eponymous Knight Ridder, told analysts that K-R was thinking of starting free dailies and smaller tab editions of its daily papers.

Over at the Florida Press Club, Charles Kiefer notes this from the Reuters dispatch: "The free tabloid trend also is gaining in popularity. These papers typically are packed with short articles for commuters who only have a few minutes in the morning to scan the news."

Kiefer notes a little sardonically: Seems to us that a five-graph story on Social Security reform in a tab-sized, give-away paper would be worth just about what you would pay for it.

U.S. tabs have that rather yellow reputation. And certainly headlines like "Roasted Nuts" in The Trentonian about a fire at a mental hospital (see the copy editor's apology) or the antics of the New York Post don't help.

But it doesn't have to be that way. As tabs have swept much of Europe, even the Times of London has caved and folded the broadsheet for good. And I predict it's likely to happen here eventually. Why? My simple observation of human behavior, including mine. I would always read the New York Daily News on the commute into the city. In recent months, I've been in Chicago and Toronto. I like to stand and watch as people approach a row of boxes. Invariably, most reach for one of the tabs. In Toronto, which has Metro (NY Times story) and others, the effect was even more pronounced (partly because of the international nature of the city, I'm sure), and I think we'll see it trickle south of the border and into not just the large cities but the heartland.

Tabs are simply more convenient. They need not be less comprehensive. (The Free Times, an alt-weekly in Columbia, is a tab, for instance, and its multipage articles can hardly be called shallow; in fact, sometimes a little trim might be in order. The day it comes out, the racks clean out pretty fast, and I see students actually reading the articles, not just the personals.)

The most recent American incarnation of the tab -- the ultra-quick-read bastardization of the concept, such as in Chicago -- just feeds into the stereotype. And who knows, K-R might go that way. After all, the Metro section of its local broadsheet in Columbia has largely become little more than a set of briefs after the first page.

But it's a funny thing about tabs. You actually have trouble getting away with that kind of stuff. Because it's more like a book, it gets obvious with page after page of briefs. It also gets annoying with page after page of jumps. So you have to say something, but do it sharp and tight and bright -- and get to the dang point. Sounds like the definition of good journalism to me. (Tempered, I think it honest to add, by Metro's formula of making everyone on staff do everything, thus keeping staff low and some of the journalism a little skimpy -- and, in the Toronto one, at least, wire-service heavy. But I don't think it's the Metro kind of tab we'll see as the idea percolates into the heartland. We might see that at first, but I think eventually, as the Times of London has, the traditional product will migrate to tab.)

So far, from what I've read and heard by talking to people, concern about potential advertisers' resistance -- without rate cuts to make up for the smaller format -- is holding things back as much as anything else.

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