STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: HOW MURDOCH GOT HIS HANDS ON THE GUARDIAN

26 January 2017

By Adam Leigh

A tabloid Guardian printed by Murdoch? Needs must when Berliner was a strategic blunder

There is a certain piquancy to this week’s news that the Guardian’s print edition may soon be moving to tabloid format under a new publishing deal with Rupert Murdoch’s printing company, Newsprinters.

But it’s a story that actually begins in September 2003. That was the month when the Independent transformed the British newspaper market by offering its readers a tabloid (or “quality compact”) for the first time.

It was a characteristically bold move, and instantly transformed the paper’s fortunes – adding around 50,000 daily sales and making it the most talked-about title in the world.

Within weeks, The Times dispensed with 218 years of tradition and followed suit.

And over the succeeding months, dozens of the world’s leading broadsheet newspapers – from Adelaide to Zagreb – went tabloid, too. Vanity Fair despatched a big-shot feature writer from New York to report on the British “revolution”.

The notable (and increasingly visible) exception was the Guardian. Despite competing with The Independent for the same affluent, educated, metropolitan readers, and being rattled by its rival’s spectacular circulation gains, it was too proud to join the revolution and instead opted to reinvent itself in the European “Berliner” format.

But since no UK printer had the ability to handle the Berliner size, Guardian News & Media (GNM) opted to invest in its own custom-built presses – at a cost of nearly £100m.

Such a hefty price-tag was bound to make a significant crimp in the company’s finances. And although the rejuvenated Guardian brand was acclaimed by industry pundits and lusted over by design students, it entirely failed to reverse or even arrest the paper’s declining print sales.

GNM’s cash reserves, once the envy of the industry, never recovered. Newsroom redundancies, previously anathema to Guardian culture, became unavoidable, while the widely reported boardroom soul-searching was both protracted and profound.

So news of the potential deal with Murdoch, though unsurprising to many in the industry, comes as a shock nonetheless.

Despite its many travails, the Guardian has created a world-leading digital brand, and its journalism – almost uniquely, in these days of fake news and “alternative facts” – still has both impact and integrity.

It’s a shock not just because it’s a sign of the times, and how hard these must have become for GNM to swallow that long-held pride, but also of the extraordinary influence Murdoch exerts over Britain’s print market.

If the deal goes ahead as advertised, Newsprinters will be responsible for publishing the entirety of the “serious” UK press – The Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times and the Guardian (still referred to, inaccurately, as the broadsheets).

Yet in truth, what’s designed to benefit both the Guardian and Newsprinters would also benefit society.

Political coverage in Britain’s newspaper market has been strikingly “one-note” since the EU referendum, and if we value our democracy we all have a stake in preserving a plurality of viewpoints.

And of course, how ironic it would be if this were to be assured by Murdoch in partnership with the Guardian – the paper whose phone-hacking disclosures cost him so dear. How the world turns.

Adam Leigh is strategy director of W Communications. He is a former deputy editor of the Independent, where he led the paper’s tabloid launch team in 2003. He left in 2011. The Independent shut its print edition in 2016.

Campaign, 26 January 2017