Fairfax Media is planning to shrink its daily papers around the country to a tabloid - or ‘compact’ - size next year. Why? And how will it change what’s on the pages? Mediawatch asks Fairfax Media CEO Sinead Boucher.
Last Monday Fairfax Media - which publishes most of the country’s newspapers - emailed staff to explain that the company's daily papers will be downsized next year - from broadsheet to compact size.
That means the pages of Monday to Friday editions of the Waikato Times, Manawatu Standard, Taranaki Daily News and The Dominion Post in the North Island will be shrinking to half the current size in mid-2018. In South Island, so will the pages of The Marlborough Express, Nelson Mail, The Press in Christchurch; the Timaru Herald and the Southland Times.
But the weekend editions of those papers - and the Sunday Star Times - will carry on as big-sized broadsheet papers, partly because they carry lucrative full-page ads for big-name retailers who tend to advertise aggressively.
Fairfax Media’s chief executive Sinead Boucher told staff last Monday the planning for the shift to what they call “a compact format” will begin now.
This is a change which may irritate some core longtime subscribers accustomed to a big broadsheet they’ve known all their lives. So why do it?
Fairfax staff were told some readers had already responded positively to mock-ups of smaller size editions - and this would be “an opportunity to reinvigorate” their journalism and design, and “deliver better value to the readers and advertisers”.
"The one thing that has come through very strongly from the readers is: please change the format," Ms Boucher told Mediawatch.
"To be honest, we are probably behind the curve in shifting to that size," she said.
The project will be led by Bernadette Courtney, chief editor for the Wellington region and The Dominion Post.
"We're not looking at this as a chance to shrink the papers, but to re-look at what matters to or loyal subscribers and our advertisers," Ms Boucher said.
"It's also a signal that not all the innovation takes place in the digital world," she said.
But cost cutting will also be part of the plan.
Printing smaller pages and distributing less bulky bundles of them around the country will save some money in the long run.
Fairfax Media is in a continuous search for a formula that will sustain its business. Sales of its papers continue to slide year-on-year and more and more advertising goes online, where it’s a lot less lucrative.
Two weeks ago, Fairfax Media management said it was proposing to axe 11 sports and racing reporters in the regions.
"Even if the proposal goes ahead, we are not giving up on local sport. We will just be covering it at a different level," Ms Boucher said.
Fairfax Media in Australia adopted the compact size for its flagship papers over there in 2013.
They retained the big size for their big-selling weekend editions, but within a year, those followed suit too and shrank down to tabloid size.
The New Zealand Herald made the move five years ago, changing the design and the mix of news and content substantially at the same time. Other local papers here had already made the shift, such as the Chronicle in Whanganui and the Oamaru Mail. The independently-owned Ashburton Guardian claimed to be the first to shrink itself back in 2000.
But from mid-2018, it look like readers of the Otago Daily Times will be the only ones left in this country that will still have to spread their arms wide to read their daily paper.
If advertising continues to drift away from Fairfax’s printed papers, they run the risk of looking flimsy in the smaller size next year. And in Marlborough and Nelson, Fairfax’s dailies are already printed on just three weekdays - more of the regional papers could follow suit next year too.
That may leave some of those who are still paying for their local paper whether what they hold in their hand is really worth the price.
"We might be moving to a smaller format ... but it will be a thicker paper with content planned around what the readers in regions and the metropolitan readers really want," Ms Boucher said.