Breaking Bad Habits: The Tale of the Giant Newspapers

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For a long time, probably much longer than I’d like to admit, I was perplexed by the size of newspapers. I couldn’t understand why they were printed in the broadsheet format, which made them big, flimsy, and difficult to read.

I’m not sure when my pet peeve originated, but my good friend Henk-Jan Bruil remembers us talking about it while we were both attending university in the town of Tilburg in the Netherlands. Back then, we used to sip coffee and talk in the basement of the school (he probably smoked a self-rolled cigarette or two as well), nursing hangovers after spending our evenings at a bar in town. According to Bruil, one day, while we were killing time between classes, I began complaining about how flipping and folding newspaper pages made for a subpar reading experience in comparison to magazines.

My newspaper fixation dogged me for years. After I graduated and finished my PhD in business economics, I began consulting for the top management team at Perscombinatie Meulenhoff (PCM), the largest Dutch newspaper company at the time. PCM owned all the large Dutch newspapers except the Telegraaf, and all of these, like most of the other newspapers in the world, favored the broadsheet format. Because I had the ears of the executives, I asked why they didn’t make their papers smaller. Since they were veterans of the newspaper trade, I was hoping that one of them would offer a clear-cut explanation. Instead, they looked at me quizzically and said, “Freek. Look around you. Every quality newspaper in the world is big; customers wouldn’t want a smaller version.”

For years, that conversation lingered in my mind. There had to be a reason for printing in a large format, I thought. Eventually, I settled on the idea that printing the news on large pieces of paper was probably cheaper.

Sometime later, after I became an assistant professor of strategic and international management at London Business School, I did some advisory work for several executives of the Guardian and its Sunday counterpart, the Observer. So I took the opportunity to ask the executives if my cost-cutting theory was correct. To my surprise, they said cost had nothing to do with it. They assured me that it was actually more expensive to print the news on large sheets of paper. But, like their peers at PCM, they had no clue why the large format was the format of choice in the industry.

Soon after, I decided I should try to find out where the large format had originated. I asked people at the Guardian and other newspapers, but I received the same answers. “It has always been like that,” they told me, shrugging their shoulders.

Undeterred, I stubbornly asked two research assistants to join the cause. They interviewed even more people—at the Times, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal Europe—but received pretty much the same reply: “Don’t know. It has always been like that.”

One morning, they came into my office and told me that they had discovered that the practice had originated in London, in 1712.

This time, I refused to take “I don’t know” for an answer. I was convinced that there was a reason for the large format, so I sent the research assistants to the British Library to dig through old books, documents, and newspapers. One morning, they came into my office and told me that they had discovered that the practice had originated in London, in 1712. As it turns out, the English government had started taxing newspaper companies based on the number of pages they printed. As a consequence, newspaper publishers began printing the news on larger sheets of paper to avoid paying more taxes.

Although the practice made little economic sense after the tax law was abolished, most newspaper companies continued to use the broadsheet format for no other reason than the unproven belief that customers wouldn’t want it any other way.

And here is how a good practice transforms into a bad one: after time passes and conditions change, everybody keeps up with the practice because they don’t remember why they started it in the first place. But there’s a happy ending to this story. While I was working with the Guardian, the Independent launched a much smaller edition of its newspaper, which was exactly half the size of its original and, as a result, its circulation increased.

Finally, someone had the courage to buck the trend.

A Striking Experiment

There was a precedent, however. The Metro, a free paper distributed to commuters in big cities worldwide, adopted a smaller, magazine-sized format and quickly become popular among Londoners (including myself). The Independent’s editor, Simon Kelner, had observed the Metro’s success, and even though it wasn’t a high-quality newspaper like the Independent, the Guardian, or the Times, he decided to give the smaller size a try.

But first he ran an experiment. Beginning in September 2003, Kelner began publishing the Independent in two formats in a small area northwest of Manchester: the traditional broadsheet and a compact version, exactly half its size. Apart from the difference in size, the newspapers were identical; the same stories, columnists, photographs, distribution points, timing of distribution, price—everything. When both versions launched, readers gravitated to the smaller format, which outsold the traditional format three to one. Given its popularity, Kelner quickly decided to offer the small format in London, too. On the October 7, 2003, both formats were made available in the London market, and as was the case in Manchester, the smaller format was a success.

In the following years, the Independent’s circulation rose by 20 percent annually.

In October alone, the paper’s national circulation rose by 7.5 percent, even though the compact edition was limited to London and Manchester. After a month, Kelner decided to expand its reach throughout Britain. By May— much earlier than it had originally anticipated—the newspaper had abolished the broadsheet version altogether. In the following years, the Independent’s circulation rose by 20 percent annually, which was quite a feat in a shrinking market.

Essentially, the editors and executives at the Independent saw the broadsheet format for what it was: a bad practice. By eliminating it, they created a new source of growth that their competitors, who were stuck in the past, hadn’t foreseen.

The tale of the giant newspapers offers various insights on how inefficient practices emerge and persist. But, more importantly, it also shows that identifying and eradicating bad practices can create a wonderful source of innovation.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Breaking Bad Habits: Defy Industry Forms and Reinvigorate Your Business. Copyright 2017 Freek Vermeulen. All rights reserved.

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