It’s not a great time to be a tabloid. While the word itself was coined by a London-based apothecary in the late nineteenth century to refer to small, easy-to-swallow pills, nowadays, of course, tabloid’s connotations are smuttier and phone-tappier than they are salubrious. The New York Observer knows this, and this week, after three and a half years at a scaled-down size, the salmon-colored weekly will return to a larger format. The Observer says the change will help it become a more “premium” product; by so declaring, it joins a long tradition of publications making announcements about What They Stand For with their dimensions.
Broadsheets have had upscale associations for quite a while. Old-timey papers were enormous—the New York Journal of Commerce of the 1830s, for example, was three feet wide—because big pages were cheaper to print. Huge, unwieldy pieces of paper covered in tiny type were not particularly convenient or appealing to the average nineteenth-century manual laborer of limited education, so early papers found their audiences among the upper crust.
That’s not to say factory workers weren’t interested in the news—hence the rise of tabloids. One of the first tabs was the New York Sun, launched in 1833: It was smaller than a broadsheet and filled with punchy illustrations. It cost only a cent and could be carried easily by the working man. Its police reports proved popular, as did accounts of local freak accidents. Such serialized Schadenfreude came to be associated with small dimensions. Today, some tabloid-size newspapers that want to avoid negative connotations, like the U.K.’s Independent, pull a semantic fast one by referring to themselves as “compacts.” (Meanwhile, the “Berliner” format is the forgotten middle child of the trim-size family and seems to escape intimations of quality one way or the other, though for whatever reason, it tends to be popular across the pond—France’s Le Monde is one example.)
In the U.K., Murdoch-inspired price wars have driven cuts in newspaper dimensions (and therefore costs); the Independent and Guardian have recently gone smaller. (Holdouts like the Financial Times and Daily Telegraph actually follow in the tradition of famed yellow-journalism tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who always demanded that his front pages be as big as they could be. By the mid-thirties, he was in extreme debt, partly to paper-pulp manufacturers.) The Observer’s re-swelling goes against the grain in this country as well. TheWall Street Journal—for decades a hearty fifteen inches wide—has downsized its front page three whole inches, joining the Times, USA Today, and Washington Post, which have all shrunk since 1998. Though it takes millions to refit presses, the costs of slimming page sizes are recouped quickly. When the Journal announced its new dimensions in 2005, the company said it was spending $56 million on new equipment but planned to make that amount back in paper savings in a little over three years.
The Observer may not have to worry much longer about what its trim size says about its essence. It can be read easily online or, increasingly, on any number of mobile devices. For the foreseeable future, publishing dimensions will probably be a uniform “big enough to read but small enough to fit in your pocket or bag.” Which just means self-identified prestige publishers will have to come up with means other than size to declare their superiority. If history is a guide, they’re no doubt already working on it.