The Age has followed its Sydney Morning Herald sibling in slimming down to a “compact” format. Our panel picks it over …

Paul Ramadge, former Age editor-in-chief:

So it’s here — a tabloid/compact/smaller/shrinking Age. Well, that was easy. It took the biggest crisis in the Australian media industry to create it, but finally readers get what they always wanted: a newspaper of a manageable size. No doubt there will be plenty of debate about the design. Does it represent a conservative and cautious debut or an innovative and progressive rebirth?

Well, the “don’t scare the readers” voices of conservatism appear to have won. The new paper is the old paper writ small, and this is understandable. The Age’s newsprint readers, most of them 45+, tend to be a conservative bunch. And the days are well and truly gone when newspaper editors — or newspaper curators — give a toss about chasing new, younger readers. The young read on screens. This new newspaper is for the die-hards, the older print readers. So, please, stand to attention: this may well be the final newsprint version of The Age, certainly on weekdays. Readers and advertisers will determine its longevity.

And here begins the much bigger challenge. As the chatter over the small format evaporates, decisions to buy The Age will come down to the content. The real debate is going to be about what’s in the paper. Readers want stories that really matter, stories that inform them and help them make decisions, stories that excite them. Think about this extraordinary year in federal politics. Will The Age lead the media pack with a distinctive, must-read coverage of the election? The Age is either going to be relevant and talked about, or not. Like never before, journalism needs The Age to succeed.

Jonathan Green, former Sunday Age editor and current host of ABC Radio National’s Sunday Extra:

What a criminally lost opportunity was this morning’s Age. This was the chance to make a first impression, to convince a curious readership that the paper could deliver in a new format. The stories? Well they were good enough. But shaded on the day by the extraordinary content of its main rival the Herald Sun. There we had secret tapes, government collusion and the whiff of scandal. That was near to unbeatable. Had The Age not squirrelled away anything better than its revelations on the Black Saturday fires? Maybe not. But then it took that good, unique and important story and wasted it through display that was timid, half-arsed and ineffectual.

The internal psychology seems pretty clear: a paper too spooked by the possibility that someone might think it racy to do anything lively that might actual sell its content … and its new format. The front page of today’s paper was a sad disgrace. Sad because it was a rare opportunity to make an impact and that was squibbed through what can only have been a strange, timid crisis of confidence. A disgrace because the thing was there to do: the content was OK. What eventuated was incompetent, not up to the moment. It was limp.

It’s all very well to say “focus on the content” but on this day of all days, when a paper with a 150-year tradition changes its format, all eyes will in fact be on the form, will be judging how the Age team grapples with a new physical presence. The other failing was selling the backpage to a carmaker. The tabloid format gives you two front pages, one for news, one for sport. That The Age could so happily trade one away on the first day of its new life tells you a lot about the business’ commercial position.

Inside? Lovely. Neat, functional, perhaps a tad magazine-ish, oddly separated editorial opinion and commentary … but by and large smoothly functional. Sad that a brace of potential readers will been so underwhelmed by the newsstand package they’ll never see any of it.

Michael Gawenda, former Age editor-in-chief:

This is about a format change and not much else. The front page feels flat. There appears to have been a deliberate attempt to keep the paper sober — to show that it’s not becoming a classic tabloid and there will be the same Age journalism as there was before. That’s probably the right decision to make. Running sport from the back is a good idea. Some people would like it as a lift-out but the paper becomes too much like a Russian doll with too many sections.

It’s a shame there is such a poor front page picture and I hate type on top of a front page picture. That tells you they don’t have a good photo. In fact, there’s not a great photo in the paper. I’ve got no doubt it will lead to an increase in readership and circulation for a while. But I don’t think this will save the business model for the Monday to Friday Age. It’s probably the last throw of the dice but it’s worthwhile.

Andrew Jaspan, former Age editor-in-chief and current editor of The Conversation:

I read it on the tram coming into work and I found it much easier to read. When I moved to Melbourne in 2004 I found the paper too big and worked hard to get it down. I wanted a narrow sheet format, like they have at The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. It was approved by [then CEO] David Kirk; then we both lost our jobs. Then Kirk’s successor, Brian McCarthy, scrapped it because it would have involved an initial increase in costs.

The problem is it’s now 10 years too late. This morning no one was reading it on my first tram; one person was reading it on my second. I think people have given up on reading The Age in print form. You can’t blame current management for that. There has been a lack of editorial vision and leadership over a long period. The London Times went tabloid in 2003, The Guardian in 2005. To call this a revolution is frankly an attempt to cover up their own embarrassment.

The stories I think are pretty good. Clearly they’ve thrown everything at it with two exclusives. With any relaunch you build up a bank of stories. The real test will be next Monday or in a month’s time. There is a huge internal battle at Fairfax at the moment. Garry Linnell [editorial director, metro media] has a populist, tabloid sensibility and is well-known to have a real interest in crime and celebrity. Then you have staff who are petrified about taking the paper mid-market. The reason The Age has been able to charge more for ads — which drives News Ltd mad — is because of its demographics, more educated, affluent readers. If the paper loses AB readers then its ability to charge more will weaken and will cause problems.

News Ltd is worried they’ll lose some circ but I think it’s a misguided fear. For Fairfax this is about retaining their readers. There will be a lift but we shouldn’t confuse that with a long term increase. We will have to tell in three months.

Michael Smith, former Age editor-in-chief:

The first edition of a new paper or a relaunched newspaper is a bit like a first date : a lot of time has been spent planning and preparing for the all-important first impressions and everyone is on their best behaviour. But the real personality may take some time to emerge.

The first day of the Fairfax tabloids can be described as having stunningly good looks and no threat to previous tastes. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have delivered on their pledge not to take the papers downmarket. The headline stories are serious and issues-based. The story count is good and there is a fair sprinkling of longer explanatory articles. Perhaps the most appealing  feature is the slightly larger body type font and more space between the lines. Neither paper could find a news photograph worthy of the front page, both relying on confected images to illustrate a story. The editorials and commentators are worryingly far back in the paper.

The Age’s main story is a good exclusive on the morning of the beginning of the class action on the Black Saturday bushfires, with expert evidence changing on what caused the breakdown of the SP AusNet power lines where the fire began. Perhaps it was a strategic leak to give the defence the first salvo on the day when the plaintiffs open the case, but it is still a good yarn.

But it was nowhere near as good as  the cracker yarn in the Herald Sun about secret tapes of advisers in the offices of the Premier and the Deputy Premier discussing how one of the Deputy Premier’s advisers could be rewarded for going away and not spilling the beans on a plot to get rid of the former Police Commissioner Simon Overland. For good measure, the Herald Sun threw in a tasty offer of AFL DVDs for readers. They know tabloid and they know Melbourne at the Herald Sun.

Today’s first edition of the Fairfax tabloids will not be a magic pill for our oldest newspaper empire. But they may offer temporary relief to the ebbing tide of newspaper sales and expose large numbers of new people who will give it a try. But the real test will come when the Fairfax paywalls are installed on the website later this year. Unless Fairfax can persuade more people to buy its product online, the future looks grim. Only then will we know whether there is a serious relationship between Fairfax and the 21st century.

Margaret Simons, former Age journalist and current Director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne:

The news about the new compact edition of The Age is kind of good. It works, for the most part, and the things that don’t work are part of a malaise that has nothing to do with paper size. Meanwhile the biggest determinant of success — the ads — are respectable in number, though only the insiders will know whether the rate card was discounted to achieve this result.

I found the new format attractive, easy to navigate and engaging, on a day when The Age iPad app was crashing regularly and as usual slow to load. It was only six months ago that I broke a five newspaper a day habit, and took to reading all papers on the iPad. Would I switch back to print because of the compact? Probably not, but as I waited for the app to load for the third time, I at least had time to ask myself the question.

The pastel coding is cute, the typeface clean, the blurbs pull you through the paper and I took up only a modest amount of my cafe’s communal table when I was reading it. The problems are not with the format, but with the heart, including apparently the paper’s understanding of its own history. — Read Margaret Simons’ full review here 

Denis Muller, former Age associate editor:

“It takes a male,” my elder daughter once admonished me, “to confuse size with function.” Today, as The Age shrinks from broadsheet to what it calls “compact” format, her crisp reproof is especially apt. There is no reason why this change to tabloid format should also mean a change to tabloid journalism. How unfortunate, then, that the first word in the first story on the first page should be “explosive”, used adjectively. Incendiary modifiers of this kind are the stock in trade of tabloid journalism.

The story itself was interesting enough. It was about evidence to be put in the class action against the power company SP AusNet arising from the Kilmore East fire on Black Saturday. However, the accurate way to describe the evidence was “new but untested”. Not sexy enough, of course, but the thoughtful reader goes looking for something more sensible. Like The Guardian Australia, which has already taken two of Fairfax’s best political analysts.

If this is the way things are to be, then Melbourne will have two tabloids in both size and function.

This is a risky time for Fairfax Media and consequently for Australia’ democracy. Fairfax’s corporate weakness magnifies the dominance of News Limited. The Age just has to get this right. Size and function, guys.

Peter Fray

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