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Why tabs won't play
in the USA

Just look at the facts and you'll see why

By Alan Jacobson, Brass Tacks Design

Are you thinking about making the leap to a tabloid format?

Some experts think you should. Roy Peter Clark says Tabloid Power is Gonna Get Your Mama. Mario Garcia calls it an "irreversible trend."

But I encourage you to look before you leap. Consider:
  • The track record of tab conversions in Europe
  • The impact of tab conversion on advertising revenue
  • The preference for broadsheets in America
  • What happened to the tab edition in Harrisburg, Pa.
    (I won't hold you in suspense - it died.)
  • An alternative to tab conversion

In Europe, results have been mixed
Garcia touts a handful of successful tab conversions in Europe. But leading European designers tell a different story.

At the Society for News Design's 2005 Workshop, designers Ole Munk of Denmark and Ally Palmer of Scotland provided statistics on broadsheet-to-tab conversions.

The results were mixed. Circulation went up at some papers. At other papers, it remained flat or went down. One paper lost half its circulation after converting.

In America, readers prefer broadsheets
Clark says that "tabs are on the way." But given a choice, Americans have consistently chosen broadsheets over tabs.

Just look at the five markets in America where tabs go head to head with broadsheets – Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver and San Francisco. In each of these markets readers have a choice between broadsheet and tab. And in each market the broadsheet outsells the tab.

Expect a loss of revenue
Much has been written about reader preference. But no one quotes The New York Times' March 2005 story about the impact of tab conversion on advertising revenue:

"Advertisers in Europe and elsewhere have been less enthusiastic than readers. Advertisers argue that a tabloid page is only half the size of a broadsheet page and say they should be charged only half the cost of a broadsheet ad."

"The result in Europe has been discounts, with advertisers in tabloids paying about 78 percent of what they would pay in a broadsheet," said Earl J. Wilkinson, executive director of INMA.

He said the reduction in revenue would have a more pronounced effect in American newspapers because Americans rely on advertising for about 85 percent of their revenues, while Europeans rely on it less so, for 60 to 70 percent of total revenues.

''European papers are in a better position to take a big risk like this than the Americans are," he said.

That "tab" stigma
You can call a tab a "compact," but a rose by any other name still smells like the National Enquirer. Americans see supermarket tabloids every day. They associate the tab size with "tabloid" journalism.

While a few quality newspapers appear in tabloid format, they are they exception. I've not found a single market in which readers say they would prefer to get their daily newspaper in tabloid format.

Sectioning was a deal breaker in San Jose
The San Jose Mercury News considered a conversion to tab. But a single issue made the decision a no go – sectioning. Readers prefer to have their paper in sections so they can separate it by content and share it with others. Most American papers do not have the means to produce a tab-format paper with sections.

And finally, The Smoking Gun
For those who believe converting to tab is the next big thing, please direct your attention to John Kirkpatrick, publisher of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa.:

"The future of the newspaper industry might well be a tabloid edition. We haven't, however, been able to prove it here."

"We've proved that a lot of occasional readers really like the compact format. We've also proved that turning them into regular buyers has been incredibly daunting."

"We couldn't seem to climb past the 1,100 mark. We could have lived with that had there been a good trend line. It really didn't point upwards in any meaningful way."

Here's what happened in Harrisburg:

For the first time in America, readers were given a choice of getting their newspaper in either broadsheet or tab format. This option was available to subscribers and single-copy purchasers.

For six months, the Patriot-News sold 100,000 papers in broadsheet format and about 1,000 in tab format – that's a 100-to-1 preference for broadsheet to tab. As of September 2005, they sell only broadsheets.

So what should newspapers do instead?
There are things editors and publishers can do to boost readership and revenue. But converting to tab is not one of them.

Instead, they should pursue the six strategies I described last month with Mary Nesbitt of The Readership Institute. Read this plan in detail.

Alan Jacobson can be reached at

Read the prescription for the newspaper industry forumlated by Alan Jacobson and Mary Nesbitt of The Readership Institute.

Read the story that sparked the debate between The Readership Insititute and Brass Tacks Design.

Read the follow-up Q&A between Alan Jacobson and the Society of News Design's Web editor, Rich Boudet.