Why Are Gossipy Newspapers Called "Tabloids"?

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While the sensational fall of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is chronicled this week by media outlets everywhere, we thought we’d get to the bottom of a less sensational question: Why are gossipy newspapers called “tabloids” anyway?

The answer is easy to swallow. No, really: condensed, simplified, “easy-to-swallow” reporting was first dubbed “tabloid” journalism in the early part of the twentieth century as a contemporary reference to the tablet-sized medications in drugstores across the Victorian world. The so-called “tabloid” medicines were all the rage in the 1880s because, unlike traditional medicine, which came in large sacks of bitter-tasting powders, they were small and easy to swallow. The same was true of the new tabloid papers, which were not only physically smaller—a mere 16.9 by 11 inches, to the traditional newspaper’s 29.5 by 23.5 inches—but also easier to read than their larger, denser broadsheet cousins.

When tabloid newspapers hit newsstands at the end of the nineteenth century, they featured short, tasty articles on celebrities and scandals, along with a dose of real news—highly sensationalized, of course, for easy consumption. While some tabloid newspaper editors claimed their products were as journalistically robust, simply more compact than regular newspapers, the tabloid form quickly became synonymous with lowbrow, unserious reporting—a common conviction that has hardly dented sales.

A hundred years ago, famous tabloids like Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal—the forefathers of Murdoch’s New York Post and Star—were selling like hotcakes. Their publishers had discovered a lucrative, and persistent, truth: news sells better if it’s wildly entertaining (never mind how true it is).

Image credit: Flickr user krossbow

Nowadays, the term “tabloid” often refers to the lowbrow, gossipy rags in supermarket checkout lines that lure you in with screaming banner headlines like "Alien Baby Found Wandering in Area 51."

Now who wouldn’t want to read that?

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July 20, 2011 - 3:54am
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