In the newspaper industry, the term “tabloid” refers both to a specific type of newspaper, and to a specific paper size. Most laypeople think of a particular kind of publication when they hear the word “tabloid,” not realizing that the term was originally used in reference to paper size, and that the two concepts are actually very closely linked.
In terms of paper size, a tabloid is about the size of a large magazine, with a depth of around 14 inches (36 centimeters) and a width of around 10 inches (25 centimeters). The tabloid is essentially half the size of the larger broadsheet format, making it much more compact and easy to handle. The precise paper size can very slightly, depending on the nation and the newspaper involved.
The term originates in the marketing for medications in the 1800s. When medicine first began to be marketed in capsules rather than cumbersome bottles of loose powder and liquids, the capsules were known as “tabloids.” The tabloid or tablet was supposed to be easier to take, since it was compact in size, and it became immensely popular.
Newspapers picked up the term when they started halving the broadsheet size. News tabloids originally presented highly compressed and compacted news, as opposed to the more detailed and lengthy news in broadsheets. Over time, tabloids came to be associated with lots of pictures, lurid imagery, and simplistic stories, an association which endures to this day.
The tabloid size has some distinct advantages from the point of view of publishers. It is cheaper to produce, requiring less paper and obviating the need for a large press which is capable of handling broadsheets. Customers like the tabloid size because it is easier to handle; wrestling with a big broadsheet can be a real pain. The tradition of presenting condensed news in a tabloid is also appealing to some readers, as some people just want the basics, without in-depth discussion.
People often use the term “tabloid” to refer to a cheap, sensationalist paper, often in the sense of a paper which is distributed for free. Many weekly and alternative papers use the tabloid format regardless as to their journalistic quality because it is cheaper and easier to produce. Alternative papers are often free, supported entirely be advertising revenue. The tendency to associate tabloids with sensationalist journalism and broadsides with reputable journalism is not always accurate, as some broadside-format papers are just as lurid as the most trashy magazines, and many tabloid-sized papers are entirely respectable.