Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The origins of "broadsheet"

The trend towards tabloids has crossed the Atlantic and is gaining traction in the US.

Tabloids aren't new to the US, but the debate surrounding high profile new English tabs such as The Times and Indepenent is taking off.

Slate's Jack Shafer takes exception to The New York Times report characterising the origin of the term broadsheet in this way:

"In the 1600's, newspapers were pamphlets about the size of modern-day paperback books. But in England in the early 1700's, newspapers began to be taxed by their number of pages. To reduce taxes, publishers printed bigger pages and fewer of them, helping to create the broadsheet that is now considered standard."
"If broadsheets owed their existence to a paper tax," Shafer writes, "then newspapers would have right-sized themselves to a different, optimum dimension after the British tax (a duty on paper) was discontinued in 1855, according to Barnhurst. Yet the broadsheet flourished for another century and a half in Britain before its 'quality' dailies started printing in the tabloid format."

Florida-based design guru Mario Garcia calls them compacts. 'Tab smells of down-market, of blood, sex and guts,' he says. 'You want to go compact. That makes you think of a small Mercedes, a small jaguar.'

So where did the word (and the tabloid format) come from? Barrister and author Julian Burnside, writing in Crikey.com.au, offers this explanation:

"In 1894, the Harmsworth brothers (Alfred and Harold, later Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere respectively) bought a failing newspaper, The London Evening News, and revised its contents by ensuring that news items were short and easily digested. They then established The Daily Mail, which was first published on 4 May 1896. It was advertised as 'The penny newspaper for one halfpenny' and 'The busy man's daily journal'. Its style was short and to the point. What it lacked in depth, it made up in brevity. It became very successful. The style of newspaper pioneered by the Harmsworth brothers was quite soon referred to as 'tabloid news'.

Tabloid has no current use other than in connection with the style of journalism pioneered by the Harmsworth brothers. It is used to describe the format of a newspaper, as well as the style of journalism generally found in those newspapers. It is also used to describe television and radio journalism which is superficial or sensational. Strangely, its true signification today is the opposite of what was originally intended, since the news dosage in tabloid journalism is not only not concentrated, but diluted to almost homeopathic levels."

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