Judging a book by its cover: Did The Age get it right on day one?

The first thing I noticed this morning at my newsagent in Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs is that the pile of Herald-Suns is twice as high as the pile of The Age. So the first comparison is easy.

Even in this relatively affluent suburb, the newsagent expects to sell more Herald-Suns than copies of The Age.

The second comparison is also easy and perhaps explains the first: the Herald-Sun is $1.20 and The Age is $2.00. Price-conscious newspaper buyers will probably prefer the cheaper product.

The canny Herald-Sun buyer also gets more bang for their buck-twenty. The Murdoch ‘tabloid’ has 80 pages and the Fairfax Media ‘compact’ has 72, plus a 16 page insert that is numbered differently.

But how do you tell a tabloid from a compact? It’s not that easy because technically they are the same size: 30X40 centimetres.

Perhaps it’s in the layout and use of colour on the front page.

Herald Sun4 March The Age

The Age has retained its signature royal blue, but the masthead is superimposed reverse in white on blue. The Herald-Sun uses a verdant green and a superimpose/reverse white, but it’s masthead block is deeper coming 14 centimetres down the page. The Age masthead is a shallow nine centimetres.

The Herald-Sun also uses its masthead to promote a “Superstar Footy DVD” give-away and incorporates action pics of two AFL stars who I don’t recognize, but who I’m sure would be very familiar to Aussie Rules fans.

As you would expect the Herald-Sun has a brighter more ‘tabloid’ front page with a bold headline in four centimeter solid capital letters: “SECRET TAPES BOMBSHELL”        . Over the top of that is a white-on-red banner also in heavy caps: “POLICE CRISIS ROCKS GOVERNMENT”. Just below the headline is a series of three ‘pointers’ also in block caps: “KEY STAFFER PAID $22,500”; “JOB HELP AT ODDS WITH PREMIER”; “BAILLIEU ADVISTER SLAMS DEJPUTY PREMIER”.

The kicker is that readers are invited to “Now listen to the recordings heraldsun.com.au”

The copy itself, across five columns is about 350 words and the story is continued across four pages (4-7) inside.

At the bottom of the page there’s three ‘skybox’ promos for contents inside the paper. This is a great tabloid front page and if you were buying the paper on its shelf-appeal, you would probably go for The Herald-Sun.

By contrast The Age seems dull, if worthy.

The lead story in The Age is also an ‘Exclusive’, by Melissa Fyfe about Black Saturday fires in 2009. The first 329 words of this story appear on page one and it’s continued inside on page six.

The headline is too long and lost against the dark blue-grey background of a fairly nondescript photograph: “New evidence challenges cause of Kilmore firestorm”. The typeface is a small modern serif – a sort of ‘squared-off’ Times-Roman.

There’s a second story on page one of The Age – so perhaps this represents more value to the casual buyer in the newsagent’s; but it means that the front page has a lot of type, about 200 words more than the Herald-Sun.

Interestingly The Age has an ad running across the bottom of the page, “launch partner” BMW with the two-deck tagline “STILL THE AGE STILL THE ULTIMATE”. It’s telling that this is the most exciting element on an otherwise bland page one.

You’d have to say the Herald-Sun won the battle of the front pages today. The story was stronger, more newsworthy and more timely; and it certainly made a bigger splash. ABC news and other Melbourne radio stations lead with it for most of the morning, but not so many picked up the ‘firestorm’ exclusive from The Age.

Fairfax Media’s group editorial manager for metro titles, Garry Linnell and Age editor-in-chief Andrew Holden are insisting that the shift to ‘compact’ will not reduce the broadsheet quality of The Age and they back this up by reference to focus groups and reader feedback.

The view from inside the Fairfax Media bunkers is that they can maintain quality and continue with longer stories than are usually found in a tabloid and so far, on day one, they have got the formula right. But the design will have to lift it is to compete with the more experienced Herald-Sun.

Not that Fairfax isn’t without some history with the tabloid—ahem, ‘compact’ formula. The Financial Review’s been doing it for years, but it has a specialist audience and puts more stories on the front page.

If you can make any assessment based on the opinions of talkback callers then the new-look The Age has won some fans—and new readers—today. At least among it’s target demographic—people who listen to Jon Faine on the ABC. Faine had Andrew Holden in the studio this morning and he did a good job of defending the changes.

Most of the call-ins who were on air while I was listening liked the smaller size. The common thread was that it made reading The Age a little easier.

There was some disquiet about the lack of sections—apparently this makes it harder to share the paper with your morning bed partner; but the response was positive.

One listener made a very interesting comment. She didn’t mind paying $2.00 for quality journalism and Holden agreed. He said of his opposition if you buy one dollar’s worth of greasy chips or two dollars; you still get greasy chips.

An interesting digression on the ‘chip wrapper’ view of yesterday’s newspaper; and a signal, perhaps, that Fairfax Media is willing to go toe-to-toe with News Limited.

Are we in for an old-fashioned newspaper war in Melbourne and Sydney? Time will tell.

The advertising slogan that Fairfax has adopted continues this theme: ‘easier to pick up, harder to put down’. It’s early days yet and perhaps we should not rush to judgment on the first day, but it is hard not to judge a book by its cover when standing in the news agency queue.

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