Every day, while thousands of commuters make their way home from the City Bowl and the suburbs to the grinding poverty of the notorious Cape Flats, one can see countless exhausted eyes staring into the pages of Die Son and the Daily Voice.
With the former having over a million readers and the latter over half a million, it is difficult to imagine a time – not so long ago – when these commuters weren’t reading anything at all on the long commute home. Their broadsheet counterparts have never been a ubiquitous source of information in the working class neighbourhoods of the Mother City, and they carry circulation figures that hardly compare.
Interestingly, the tabloids in Cape Town have indeed seen a decline in figures during these years of recession, but that decline is far milder than that experienced by the broadsheets.
The proverbial media landscape keeps shifting and with the recent shift of the Cape Argus from the afternoon to both the morning and afternoon, coupled with its conversion from broadsheet to tabloid format, the chattering classes in the media industry have been wondering how this will alter things, if at all.
Should the daily tabloids – the Daily Voice and Die Son – worry about shifting loyalties among Cape Flats readers?
Daily Voice deputy editor, Elliott Sylvester, says the content is still different enough to appeal to another demographic altogether.
“The new Argus is tabloid in size but not style, so there isn’t a crossover in content,” he explains, using a shopping analogy to illuminate his point: “The Cape Argus offers a supermarket of news. It has a broader scope with content from all over. The Daily Voice is much more specific, and is vehemently community focused.”
The biggest shift in the Cape Town media landscape is where the tabloids have placed themselves in setting the news agenda.
“The tabloids have made people take note of the stories that we break and follow. Lots of these stories were ignored before, but we are putting them out there and they can’t just be ignored anymore,” says Sylvester. He adds that the tabloids have increasingly come up with legitimate news leads, and that these stories tackle real issues or events that affect a specific geographical area like the Cape Flats or pockets thereof.
Interestingly, these papers have created readers rather than stolen readers from other titles, he explains.
“We came on to the scene and appealed to a new market that before hadn’t read papers at all. There is still room for growth, because our brand of news is something that you just don’t get on e.tv, or in Die Burger, or anywhere else. You have to buy our paper if you want that type of news.”
Interestingly, during the cold rainy Cape Town winters, there is always a slight dip.
“Ours is a commuter market, so people tend to buy less regularly in winter. When they are dashing in the wind and the rain to jump into a taxi, they are not going to stop to buy the paper.”
That is a predictable factor that comes along every year.
What couldn’t have been predicted, however, was the runaway success of tabloid journalism as a genre in this country.
According to Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism at University of the Witwatersrand, tabloids find fertile ground in a highly urbanised area like Cape Town, but it took quite some time for the South African media industry to recognise this.
“The major newspaper groups woke up from their slumber to discover there was a market. This was driven by the extraordinary character, Deon du Plessis,” he says. “The ballooning of the LSM 5-6 demographic created the opportunity, but first one had to break through the ignorance, resistance and fear in the media world and particularly the ad agency part of it which was nervous of products outside of the comfortable, elite market. Deon and his researcher, Jos Kuper, saw the opportunity and crafted the product to meet it. The Independent Group chickened out, but Media24 had the guts and vision to take it on. Others quickly followed.”
But, he says, “This is a rapidly shifting part of the market, so only those who change and adapt and move with their audience will continue to make their mark.”
Inevitably, the rise of tabloids in the Mother City has also generated debate about the ethics of tabloid-style journalism in a region already beset with enormous inequality and social issues.
William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa, says that Die Son and the Daily Voice do subscribe to the Press Council code and this should mean that they adhere to the same ethical standards as all other newspapers.
He adds: “Where the major differences come in are in issues of taste and quality, which are far more subjective and will often push the bounds of ethical practice. The tabloids have encouraged perpetuation of certain stereotypes about gender for example, and it is quite possible that this has contributed to a perceived drop in standards and quality in journalism in Cape Town.”
If Sylvester is correct, and the tabloids have created a readership rather than attracted a readership from other titles, one wonders if this is necessarily a positive step.
“I think the concerns arise over issues of diversity and quality,” explains Bird. “If people only read media that perpetuates stereotypes of various kinds then it certainly undermines their ability to act as well-informed citizens.”
The next element to stir things up on the Cape Flats is the pending rise of the mobi news site – but perhaps by then, tabloid readers will remain loyal to the titles they say gave their communities a media voice in the first place. Now it is up to the titles to get it just right as they embrace technology just as it becomes more affordable to their loyal fans.
And the community says…
So what do Cape Flats residents – at whom the Cape Town tabloids are aimed – have to say about them?
Richard Cearns (65) says he reads both Die Son and the Daily Voice every day.
“We like to see news about our own community,” he says. “It reflects who we really are. It is community based, and people want to be in it.”
He says he used to read the Athlone Times and the Athlone Post, but “those papers are dead now so we read the tabloids because that is what we have”.
Daily Voice reader Alec Murphy (58) says he primarily reads it because of the jokes and the sport. “I try to ignore the bad news, and sometimes there is some good news too.”
Cost is a big issue for him and the Argus or the Cape Times are not papers he wants to spend money on.
“The Daily Voice is aimed at me, and so I read it,” he says.
Brianna September (49) says that she does read the Cape Argus or the Cape Times if she “finds it at work or it is lying around somewhere”.
“I could never buy either of those with my own money,” she adds, “so it is the cost that makes the Sun and Voice the right papers for me.”
Litha Delo (23) says she buys the Daily Voice three times a week.
“I mainly read it for the sports and the jokes,” she says, “so it is escapism. I have only grown up with these newspapers so I read no other newspapers before that.”
Interestingly, all those interviewed for this vox pop said they wish the papers didn’t cover the gangsterism on the Cape Flats at all. They say it just makes people “do bad stuff to get famous”.