The Times took some tabloids features to enhance its format. Sharlene Sharim finds out that the ‘yellow press’ has much to offer other newspapers in a story first published in The Media magazine.
Whether critics like it or not, tabloid newspapers are a popular read among South Africans. Yet many in the media industry lambaste them in one breath for producing sensationalist content, bordering on the ridiculous, while lauding them in the next for their uncanny ability to draw readers with punchy articles and headlines.
“It seems to me that a really powerful headline could sell a paper. If it’s really good it can be talked about for months,” says Bill Coles, British tabloid expert who is also an editorial consultant at Media24. He lists some funnies like “George Michael shunts trucker in the rear” after the singer crashed his Range Rover into the back of a lorry, and “Ronaldo has night in Paris” penned after the footballer and heiress went on a date, as good examples.
Much like these headlines, Sondag’s 28% increase in circulation between the first quarter of 2010 and 2011 is also difficult to disregard. Son-op-Sondag is also up by 8%.
And while the ABC’s first quarter figures reveal a massive 17% decrease in circulation for the Daily Sun, at 400 699 it still enjoys the biggest circulation of any daily newspaper in South Africa. It also has a readership of around five million.
On reading these stats, it is no wonder the media is coming to the conclusion that perhaps tabloids have stumbled onto some sort of success recipe into which traditional newspapers can or should be tapping.
Rhodes University Professor Herman Wasserman says South African tabloids have become successful because they take seriously those audiences who are often ignored or marginalised by mainstream or elite broadsheet newspapers.
“They are involved in the communities they report on, they spend time ‘on the ground’ in those communities and do not rely on telephone and press release-journalism to the extent that mainstream papers unfortunately too often do. They report on people’s everyday lived experience, and make politics relevant to their daily life,” he says.
Editor of The Times, Phylicia Oppelt, believes that tabloids have brought a freshness and cheekiness and a very different kind of audience and way of storytelling to South Africa.
The Times was launched in 2007 as a subscription driver to the Sunday Times. They hit newsstands in February 2008 and in the first quarter of 2010, they sold just over 2 000 single copies of The Times. One year later and that figure has grown to just under 36 000.
Being a tabloid-format newspaper, Oppelt says they’ve incorporated the mantra of being “a short, sharp read”.
But as she points out: “Our execution is different from a tabloid like Daily Sun in terms of treatment of stories and its packaging. But the ethos is the same: don’t expect to capture your readers’ attention early in the morning with overly long stories.
“We make the choices for our readers in 28 pages, five days of the week. We also have a very visual approach to our treatment of the tabloid. Our ‘10in10’ is one of the most popular destinations for our readers,” she says.
Other mainstream newspapers say Oppelt should learn from tabloids not to take themselves so seriously. “The new successful tabloids were launched post-1994 and this is perhaps most instructive,” she says. “It does not have the legacy issues to deal with that many older, more traditional broadsheets have to contend with.
“Tabloids are nimble and agile and you have to condense and package information that will make the most of a page or a newspaper. This makes the selection process regarding stories and their projection so much more important.”
Wasserman agrees that mainstream newspapers need to make more of an effort to find out what makes their readers ‘tick’, what goes on in their everyday lives and what they are concerned about.
“Make the news relevant to them. Get out of the office and into the streets,” he says.
Caxton professor of journalism and media studies and director of the journalism programme at Wits, Anton Harber, believes attitude is part of it. “The attitude towards authority and politicians…that edge that most of the tabloids have — which is often missing in the mainstream media — is something we do need to think about.”
Harber grapples with the fact that his students don’t read enough newspapers, because they find traditional newspapers dull and boring. “And that’s because they usually are,” he says.
He believes the use of sharp headlines, sharp and tight writing, simple language, fewer press conferences and media releases need to be injected into all journalism.
“These things apply to all journalism but most of our traditional media has forgotten it and as a result are very dull and boring and distant from all but a small diminishing band of readers.”
“And that is the reality,” he says.