The Difference Between Broadsheet and Tabloid Newspapers

Man reading New York Times
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In the world of print journalism, the two main formats for newspapers are broadsheets and tabloids. Strictly speaking, those terms refer to the size of such papers, but both formats also have colorful histories and associations. The difference between broadsheets and tabloids provides an interesting journalistic journey.

History of Broadsheets and Tabloids

Broadsheet newspapers first appeared in 18th-century Britain after the government began to tax newspapers based on how many pages they had, making big papers with fewer pages cheaper to print than smaller, easier-to-hold ones, says Kath Bates, writing on the website Oxford Open Learning. She adds:

"As few people could read to the standard required of those early broadsheet editions, they soon became associated with the aristocracy and more well-to-do businessmen. Even today, broadsheet papers tend to be linked with a higher-minded approach to news-gathering and delivery, with readers of such papers opting for in-depth articles and editorials."

Bates adds that, by comparison, tabloid newspapers—perhaps due to their smaller size—have always been associated with shorter, crisper stories. Tabloids date to the early 1900s when they were referred to as "small newspapers," which contained condensed stories that were easily consumed by everyday readers. Tabloid readers traditionally came from the lower-middle and working classes, but that has changed in the past few decades, and it's also a bit of a misconception. The New York Daily News, the most widely circulated tabloid in the United States, for example, has won 11 ​Pulitzer Prizes, journalism's highest honor, as of June 2018. Still, even with the blurring of clear distinctions between the economic or class status of their readership, advertisers continue to target different markets when buying space in broadsheets and tabloids.

What Are Tabloids?

In the technical sense, tabloid refers to a type of newspaper that typically measures 11-by-17-inches, is usually no more than five columns across, and is narrower than a broadsheet newspaper. Since tabloids are smaller, their stories tend to be shorter than those found in broadsheets.

And while broadsheet readers tend to be upscale suburbanites, tabloid readers are often working-class residents of big cities. Indeed, many city dwellers prefer tabloids because they are easy to carry and read on the subway or bus.

One of the first tabloids in the U.S. was the New York Sun, started in 1833. It cost only a penny, was easy to carry, and its crime reporting and illustrations proved popular with working-class readers.

Tabloids tend to be more irreverent and slangy in their writing style than their more serious broadsheet brothers. In a crime story, a broadsheet will refer to a police officer, while the tabloid will call him a cop. And while a broadsheet might spend dozens of column inches on "serious" news—say, a major bill being debated in Congress—a tabloid is more likely to zero in on a heinous sensational crime story or celebrity gossip.

In fact, the word tabloid has come to be associated with the kind of supermarket checkout aisle papers—such as the National Enquirer—that focus on splashy, lurid stories about celebrities.

But there's an important distinction to be made here. True, there are the over-the-top tabloids, but there are also the so-called respectable tabloids, such as the New York Daily News, the "Chicago Sun-Times," and the "Boston Herald," that do serious, hard-hitting journalism. As noted, the "Daily News" has won nearly a dozen Pulitzers.

In Britain, tabloid papers—also known as the "red tops" for their front-page banners—tend to be much racier and sensationalistic than their American counterparts. Indeed, the unscrupulous reporting methods employed by some tabloids (or tabs) led to the so-called ​phone-hacking scandal and the closing of the News of the World, one of Britain's biggest tabs. The scandal has also resulted in calls for greater regulation of the press in Britain.

What Are Broadsheets?

Broadsheet refers to the most common newspaper format, which, if you're measuring the front page, is typically around 15 inches wide to 20 or more inches long in the U.S. (though sizes can vary around the world). Broadsheet papers are usually six columns across.

Broadsheets have come to be associated with a high-minded approach to the dissemination of news, as well as with an upscale readership. Even today, broadsheet papers tend to employ a traditional approach to newsgathering that emphasizes in-depth coverage and a sober tone in articles and editorials. Broadsheet readers are often fairly affluent and educated, with many of them living in the suburbs. Many of the nation's most respected and influential newspapersThe New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal—are broadsheet papers.

However, in recent years many broadsheets have been reduced in size to cut printing costs. For instance, The New York Times was narrowed by 1 1/2 inches in 2008. Other broadsheet papers, including USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post, have also been trimmed in size.

Broadsheets and Tabloids Today

Newspapers—whether broadsheets or tabloids—are experiencing difficult times these days. Readership has slipped for both types of newspapers as many readers have turned to the internet for their news. Readers can now easily obtain up-to-the-minute news from a variety of online sources, often for free. For example, AOL, an internet portal, offers online news articles on everything from mass shootings, Supreme Court decisions, and international issues to sports and weather events—all at no charge.

CNN, also known as Cable News Network, is known mostly for its on-air coverage of domestic and international issues. But the cable news service also has a well-established news website that provides free articles, and even video news clips, of nearly all major domestic and foreign news stories. It's difficult for broadsheets and tabloids to compete with organizations providing such wide-ranging and cost-free coverage, especially when papers have traditionally charged readers who want access to the news and information stories they offer.

Between 2000 and 2015, annual advertising revenue at all U.S. newspapers, both tabloids and broadsheets, tumbled from $60 billion to $20 billion, according to Derek Thompson writing in The Atlantic. And a Pew Research Center study noted that circulation for all U.S. newspapers—both print and digital—has fallen every year for the past three decades, including an 8 percent decline between 2015 and 2016.

The Pew Center study did note some positive gains, however, for the nation's largest broadsheet papers. The New York Times added more than 500,000 online subscriptions in 2016, the most recent year for which figures are available, a nearly 50 percent jump from the previous year. In that same period, The Wall Street Journal added more than 150,000 digital subscriptions, a 23 percent rise.

Online Changes

Of note, though, the online versions of those broadsheets are more tabloid-like in format; they are more linear and with flashier headlines than the print editions of these broadsheets for the same editions. For example, The New York Times online edition is only four columns wide, similar to a tabloid, though the second column tends to be wider than the other three.

The main headline for The New York Times online edition of June 20, 2018, was: "Trump Retreats After Border Outcry," which was splashed in flashy italic type above a main story and several sidebars about the public debate over a U.S. policy that separated parents seeking to enter the country from their children. The print edition for the same day—which, of course, was one news cycle behind the online edition—featured a much more sedate headline for its main story stating, "GOP Moves to End Trump's Family Separation Policy, but Can't Agree How."

As readers gravitate to briefer stories and instant access to news via the internet, broadsheets may begin to adopt tabloid formats online. To survive, the broadsheets—at least online—seem to be taking a page out of the tabloid playbook: brief stories, flashy headlines, attention-grabbing color, and more graphics. As technology increases the ability of readers to access news in an instant, newspapers may be moving to return to the format of the very first tabloids. The name of the game seems to be capture readers' attention with tabloid techniques rather than offering more in-depth broadsheet-like serious news stories.