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The meaning of newspaper formats, or why choosing the right paper is about more than meets the eye

Why do we call sensational, gossipy newspapers tabloids? I’d guess most of us just assume that a tabloid simply is what those kinds of papers are called, but technically speaking ‘tabloid’ refers to the newspaper format in which they’re printed. Tabloid became shorthand for the kinds of newspapers most frequently printed in that smaller format, and the name stuck.

While there’s no defined tabloid size, tabloid papers are notably smaller than broadsheet newspapers. So what’s a broadsheet?

The broadsheet newspaper format is a much larger paper size, usually around twice the size of a tabloid. Broadsheet sizes vary by region, with South African broadsheet papers traditionally printed at 820 x 578 mm.

What’s in a number?

It may be quaint to think about it now – in an age of smartphones and iPads and Kindles – but for a long time, the newspaper format was seen as an indicator of quality and seriousness. To some people, it still is.

Broadsheet papers were traditionally considered more highbrow and rigorous (think of serious men in three piece suits reading the Times on a bus to the City of London) while anything in a smaller format was considered lowbrow.

The association was so strong that when the British newspapers changed smaller formats in the early 200s, the move was seen as bold and daring. There was a risk that quality broadsheets could now be seen as less authoritative simply because they were printed in a format that was easier to read on the Tube. 

Interestingly, when the Guardian chose to modernise its format in 2005, the paper chose to invest in the niche (for Britain, at least) Berliner format, midway between tabloid and broadsheet. The idea was to choose a format that signified the paper’s innovation and boldness.

Symbols of success

The weird thing about the broadsheet v tabloid binary is that it’s just a historical quirk. There’s nothing inherently ‘serious’ about a larger piece of paper. And yet, if you printed your paper in a smaller format, you’d never be taken seriously.

It’s a reminder that we engage with products in all kinds of ways, many of which are as much about cultural associations than any inherent quality of the materials used. 

Think of glossy magazines that need just the right finish to be considered suitably glamorous. Or thicker business cards with a plush ‘premium’ feel … what’s intrinsically premium about a thick piece of card?

Think about the perfect paper for wedding invitations or plush executive communications. What look and feel do you want? What message do you want to communicate? Do you want to convey luxury? Of course, you need a paper that’s reliable and made to high quality standards. But what else? What are those signifiers that matter so much from one job to the next?

As paper specialists, we think about paper all the time. Not just about the commercial applications of paper but of the various ways societies communicate with paper, sometimes very subtly. If you’re looking for just the right paper for absolutely any project, don’t hesitate to contact Peter Papers. We’ll find you the perfect paper for the job. 

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