By Business editor Peter Ryan
Commuters in Sydney and Melbourne found they had a little more elbow room this morning.
In what's more of a survival strategy than a cosmetic overhaul, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age hit the streets today in a new tabloid format.
The larger broadsheet layout has been dumped for weekday editions as Fairfax Media fights to hold onto readers and advertisers in a digital media world that's forced the closure of papers around the globe.
Listen to my story from this morning's edition of AM.
Apart from the size - which Fairfax prefers to call "compact" - one of the biggest changes puts sport on to the back page, and in a newspaper first, brain imaging research was used to track what readers really want, according to Fairfax's head of advertising strategy, Sarah Keith.
"There was a concern that you think well maybe you're using the left brain, you know, sort of more detailed side of the brain when you read a broadsheet but maybe with compact you're just sort of skimming over things," Ms Keith told AM.
"Actually what we discovered is that the brain was in a very, very balanced state when reading the compact, which was great news, which from my point of view when I'm going out to talk to advertisers are saying look, actually your ads are going to be more engaging in this product."
A former editor of The Age, Mike Smith, says the long-resisted switch is now a matter of survival with the rivers of gold from classified advertising now a trickle.
"This is the most significant physical change to the Fairfax papers since they took ads off the front page and it took a world war to do that and it's taken a threat to their very existence to make them go tabloid," Mr Smith said.
And Mike Smith agrees Fairfax's biggest challenge is protecting the values of the old broadsheet brand, such as quality and high editorial standards.
"There are already some people who say that the Fairfax papers are tabloid papers in broadsheet clothing, and they've been very careful in their marketing of these papers that are coming out to try and protect the brand and persuade and convince people that nothing is happening to the journalism, just the size."
The former editor in chief of the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Fray, who was ousted last year as part of Fairfax's restructure, says if the tabloid switch doesn't work, week-day printed editions of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald might disappear within five years.
"If you can deliver what audience want in any form and any channel then you may have a future. My gut feeling is that we may not see a printed Monday to Friday in say five years. Some people say it's much sooner than that, one to two years."
Today's changes are just the start - next comes the digital pay-wall later this year and the closure of printing presses in Sydney and Melbourne, which will see The Age and the Herald published at less expensive regional sites.