IN THE mid-1990s a traveller stopped by the side of a road in an Asian country to take in a scene, apparently unchanged for hundreds of years. As he watched, a man who had been bent low, working at planting in a field, stood and began gesticulating with one hand. His other hand was pressing something to his ear - a mobile phone.
Greg Hywood, now chief executive of Fairfax Media, retold the story at a conference with senior editors in 1998, when he was editor-in-chief of the Herald. He was not unfamiliar with the spread of technology - he knew about the huge early uptake in Australia and the US, where he had been Washington correspondent for The Australian Financial Review. But he wanted Herald executives to realise wireless technology and its potential was not in the future. It was here now and it was worldwide.
Soon after, in Silicon Valley, he saw for himself the internet revolution in action when some young Indian hotshots showed how to use the internet to search classified advertising. ''I realised then the fight Fairfax Media had on its hands.''
Next week the company, which began on April 18, 1831, with one masthead, the weekly Sydney Herald (later The Sydney Morning Herald), will take the next big step in the fight to retain relevance for the print newspaper in a digital age. On
Monday the weekday Herald drops its treasured broadsheet format to what is widely called tabloid, although the preferred word is ''compact''.
At least on size it is almost full circle. The original Herald was 10 ½⁄ inches by 16 ½⁄ inches (27 centimetres by 42 centimetres, or about half a column shy of the current folded Herald).
This year will also mark 120 years since the Herald joined most of its competitors by lowering its price to one penny. Although an editorial cited lower costs because of great advances in technology as one reason, it emphasised its desire to widen its availability to all classes. It promised - as Fairfax Media does with the new format - that there would be no loss in the quality of its content.
Its broadsheet format remained. It was not until October 1941 - ahead of the change to news instead of classifieds on page 1 on April 15, 1944 - that the paper was reduced in size, in what an editorial described as ''the greatest mechanical advance in the paper's 110 years' history''. Its width was cut by 25 per cent, but it was still a broadsheet.
The change to true compact will bring the weekday Herald much closer to the declaration of 1941: ''The smaller size conforms to modern standards, and will be more easily handled by those who must read the news in crowded trains, trams or buses.''
The editor-in-chief, Sean Aylmer, said: ''The Sydney Morning Herald, since inception, has been about quality journalism. Fair and balanced coverage is why people have read us for almost two centuries. It is why we have survived and prospered. That won't change.
''Whether people read us as a compact newspaper, or on a smartphone, or tablet, or online, and any other future platform, quality journalism in politics, business, sport, entertainment or any other topic will always be our raison d'etre.''
Max Prisk is a former editor of the Herald (1988-93).