Why Are Newspapers So Damn Large?

Why are broadsheet newspapers so big that they cannot fit into a large scanner? Why were they as large as they were to begin with? One of the problems that used to annoy the daily commuter was the size of the broadsheet (The New York Times, in fact, offered booklets on how best to fold the paper vertically and horizontally). The tabloid was invented to avoid the wing or page-spread demands of the broadsheet.

Broadsheets, which connote a single poster-esque page, had an average measurement of approximately 2912 by 2312 inches (749 by 597 mm). This has narrowed over time as paper has become more expensive. In the U.K., the original rationale for the immense scale was that in 1712 the British enacted a newspaper tax based on the number of pages in each edition (those Brits with their taxes!).

In other parts of the world the size did matter and implied more authority. Broadsheets were used to post all sorts of official notices. Ultimately, a larger readership, hungering for more news, views and information triggered the combining of broadsheet proclamations with newspapers and the large format became the authoritative hybrid. Often they were printed in eight-page signatures, but of course, this changed markedly in the 20th century.

Today, the size of the broadsheet is threatened, in part because of paper and plant costs, but also because an entire newspaper can now be held in the palm of your hand. Seems a shame to lose it, but Sundays will be less guilt-inducing as the newsprint piles up in the corner while the smartphone pings the latest headlines.


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3 thoughts on “Why Are Newspapers So Damn Large?

  1. RitterKnight

    Interesting read. I would imagine part of the reason is that binding together papers used to play a role. Might as well fit as much interesting stuff as you can on the front page to make people want to buy it. That’s where the term “above the fold” comes from right?

    The whole news industry has basically changed. It used to be publications would care about the news. Now it’s all about how fast you can break the story, evidence be damned, correct it later. By tomorrow, the news is dead versus 100 years ago, something that happened a week ago was really fresh.

    Seems like an inevitable that everything shrinks in size. Look at the humble transistor radio. People used to huddle around this huge piece of furniture and take in the storytelling and news. Same with computers and land line telephones. And with that, our attention spans have shrunk as well…

    1. hjw

      I don’t think it’s quite true that everything shrinks. (Not a reference to the universe.) TV’s began with weensy screens (the visual part–in admittedly huge sets). Now, they have monster screens, wall-dominating screens, room-eating screens and sound systems.

      No argument from me about miniaturization of attention spans. And, relatedly, interest in “reflecting” on something has vanished altogether.

  2. hjw

    I think there are good reasons for large newspapers.
    1. You can efficiently wrap fish and chips. (Inner layer of wax paper recommended.)
    2. You can assess a lot of material using visual search and then narrow in on the topic of greatest interest, using folding if necessary.
    3. A lot of the piece of interest may be on the one page.
    4. You get a “map” of the article from the large view.
    5. From a different perspective, It’s as if you had a flexible, foldable 29″x23″ display, which would be a technological marvel if it were electronic.
    6. With responsible forest management and recycling, newspaper might score as well as a rare-metal-containing smart device which will be discarded in a year or two.
    7. Who really wants to read something interesting on a few eensy inches of display?