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18 January 2018

Black and white and not red all over: the incredible shrinking Guardian

Readers are left in no doubt that the paper is still a high-minded broadsheet in spirit, if not in format.

By Peter Wilby

The typical Guardian writer, according to the late Malcolm Muggeridge, is characterised by “a certain self-righteousness of expression and bearing; the firm mouth and chin saying that news is sacred, the bright left eye that comment is free”. I was reminded of this description by the paper’s new tabloid format. The understated headlines, the studiously dignified and gimmick-free presentation, and the restrained font leave readers in no doubt that this is still a high-minded broadsheet in spirit if not in format. The G2 section, a riot of colour and funkiness, is different. Perhaps Muggeridge, if he were still with us, would spot a seductive flash of thigh in the modern Guardianista’s bearing.

As an editor from the pre-digital era, however, I am most struck by the apparent indifference to news-stand impact. Editors once fretted over whether their front pages had enough carrots to entice casual buyers. But everything on the tabloid Guardian’s front page – news headlines, teasers for features inside, even Polly Toynbee’s name – is overshadowed by the black, bold, two-deck masthead. Perhaps the circulation experts advise that impulse buyers no longer exist. Or perhaps the editor, Katharine Viner, wants to keep the readership as an exclusive club.

Triumph of the bean counters

Though Viner writes eloquently about “a space for big ideas, for debate, for clear thinking… above all, for hope” (do I detect a plaintive note in those last four words?), the real reason for going tabloid is to cut costs. The Berliner format was chosen by Viner’s predecessor Alan Rusbridger to distance the Guardian from its vulgar (Times) and desperate (Independent) rivals. Its abandonment after barely 12 years is an extraordinary reversal, explained by the need to stem annual losses of £45m (2016-17).

Savings are achieved not just through shutting down the company’s print site and printing on contract with Trinity Mirror. Several regular columnists have disappeared. They include the Corbynista (or, as he prefers, “radical social democrat”) Paul Mason; the Anglican priest Giles Fraser; and the former Guardian magazine editor Deborah Orr. Nearly all the section editors report space for fewer words. “The Long Read” of around 4,500 words nevertheless survives, looking as daunting as ever. But where it previously opened the comment section, it is now banished to the back. Guardian bean counters no doubt have it in their sights already.

A suitable line of work

If Guardian journalists are as Muggeridge described, most hacks are made from rougher cloth. Half-heartedly tidying my study for the new year, I unearthed and read for the first time A Crooked Sixpence, a novel by the late Sunday Times journalist Murray Sayle. First published in 1961, it was reissued in 2008 with a cover quote from Sayle’s colleague and friend Phillip Knightley describing it as “the best book about journalism – ever”. I reserve judgement on that, but it certainly has the best description of why most of us were attracted to the trade. The hero O’Toole, like the author an Australian-born journalist, says: “I have no application, no purpose, nothing to say and I hate to get up in the mornings… I’m in a very suitable line of work.” 

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