Local is lekker when it comes to stirring the pot in the hot competition among KwaZulu-Natal media, reports Patricia McCracken.
Perhaps it’s some lingering impact of the COP17 environmental and media circus last year, or simply the Sharks regaining (some of) their mojo – but somehow KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) mainstream media folk have taken to ‘acting local and thinking global’. They are tuning into the heartbeat of the communities they serve and responding to bottom-up inputs. This seems to be a positive solution to fight back in what Mercury editor Philani Mgwaba ruefully calls the general “bloodbath” of the second quarter, 2012 newspaper Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABCs) statistics.
“The KZN media is vibrant and active and the competition’s quite stiff,” notes Jovial Rantao, who arrived from The Star in Johannesburg to edit the Sunday Tribune in March 2012. ‘Phase One’ of his new approach has been to position the Tribune as a local, campaigning newspaper.
“Our ‘Citywatch’ section is a roaring success, helping make life better for our readers, from issues with council to open spaces,” he says. “We’re flooded with letters every day and it makes us more than just another newspaper to people.”
The paper’s newest supplement, Tribune Business, launched in January 2012, showcases KZN entrepreneurs and is a vital part of what the Tribune’s focus on its community’s needs and wants that complements the essentially national and international news coverage.
This newspaperman has been impressed by what is happening on radio in his new provincial home, saying it is “especially vibey and happening”.
Lotus FM, for example, is starting to recapture audience under station manager Alvin Pillay and at the 2012 MTN Radio Awards it scooped five awards. But locally and nationally, radio’s main success story continues to be Ukhozi FM.
Ukhozi celebrated its 50th year of ’independence’ on FM this year by reaching a new landmark in style, scooping nine MTN Radio Awards and recording a listenership of 7 188 000 for the second quarter 2012, says provincial general manager, Zamambo Mkize. It is now the world’s second-largest radio station, outranked only by a Chinese station.
After hovering just below the seven million mark during the past few ratings periods, Ukhozi’s final push over the top has been helped by three revamped daily shows and two at weekends that skilfully blend local angles and interest in current affairs. Executive producer Dumisani Ndimande’s remoulded elements that radio has traditionally handled well in KZN – such as live broadcasts and townhall-style debates usually at election times – with contemporary social media, Facebook and Twitter.
Ukhozi is one element of the rise and rise of Zulu media, which flies in the face of the world economic slowdown and continues to leave more traditional media gasping in admiration. The other continuing Zulu success story is print.
It’s a moot point whether it’s economics or shifting public interest that have nibbled at weekday newspapers – the biweekly Ilanga is down about 7% in the 2012 second quarter to total sales of 128 877. Isolezwe’s daily edition also stumbled in this period, down about 5%. Sazi Hadebe, who started as editor in July 2012 after former editor Mazwi Xaba headed north to take the reins at Daily Sun, notes this is however Isolezwe’s seventh consecutive quarter above 100 000. When this first Zulu daily was launched 10 years ago, the most optimistic sales forecast was 50 000.
Isolezwe built success through sourcing a mix of news and debate that’s local with localised national and international stories. They do it in a way that makes it relevant to today’s Zulu reader and is delivered in their home language. Morphing that formula into local lifestyle stories is what’s delivering impressively well for the newspaper’s newer Saturday and Sunday siblings.
With Saturday’s Isolezwe ngoMgqibelo now more than a year old, its second quarter sales went over 76 000, an (unaudited) increase of more than 9%. Introducing Isomag with its TV pull-out guide assisted this. A similar trend to add value has been seen in the three-year-old Sunday edition, Isolezwe ngeSonto, with SiyaPhola (Chillout), believed to be the first glossy Sunday magazine published in Zulu, added in June, along with Ezezindlu, a property section. Its second-quarter sales are 10,5% up to 90 092. Meanwhile, the competition, Ilangalangesonto, is down 11,5% over the period to 77 345, bearing out Rantao’s views on fierce competition in the KZN market.
“The Isolezwe brand is a conventional newspaper with a really unconventional performance – quite extraordinary within newspaper history,” says editor of the Daily News, Alan Dunn, “It’s all way beyond any dreams and business plans.”
Despite that, Mercury editor Philani Mgwaba rubs his hands with a particular kind of anticipation. As Isolezwe’s launch editor in 2002, Mgwaba saw the first Zulu daily become KZN’s biggest daily even before he moved in 2005 to edit the Pretoria News. He believes Isolezwe continues to tap pent-up demand for print in Zulu – but, even more excitingly, the demand can be grown into the larger market. He believes that it is not so much the language that people are flocking to the newspaper for but the community-focused aspirational nature of the paper.
“I believe these consumers are aspirational, so a good proportion in this generation, and certainly in the next, will graduate into reading newspapers more generally. The Mercury is my alma mater and it is and will be read by the thinking person and the businessperson. So it will continue to be a paper the African middle-class and intellectuals feel comfortable reading, as I remember when I was growing up.”
Mgwaba believes locally targeted lifestyle elements, for example, appeal on a class basis, not to any particular race group. He points especially to this year’s Mercury Wine Week, now in its 32nd year: “This year we promoted it with iGagasi FM and for the first time, it fulfilled its promise of a really great mix of Indians, Africans and whites attending.”
Another highpoint of this approach is the Mercury’s monthly Food & Wine supplement in which Durban journalist Debbie Reynolds covers local lifestyle.
Independent on Saturday’s editor, Deon Delport, says: “Saturday morning is a challenging niche. As far as possible we want to be relevant to the people of Durban, finding the local angle or the local person who can comment on the national angle and we believe this has helped slow the circulation slide. As Warren Buffett said, ‘Newspapers will survive only if they focus on the local community’.”
It’s an approach that’s also serving former e.tv anchor Aakash Bramdeo well. Having returned to The Post where he began his career 18 years ago, editor Bramdeo has infused this publication with a new energy.
Meanwhile, Dunn has edited the Daily News for three years, seeing it as one of the most recognisable names in South Africa, not just KZN, after 134 years in print – though operating in an admittedly precarious environment.
“I’m very aware we’re one of SA’s few remaining afternoon papers in a world where papers are being closed overseas by the hundreds and others welded together into 24-hour operations,” he says. “With much news being released for evening TV news and morning-paper deadlines, we have to look for fresh and interesting ways of humanising the story behind the news.
“Beyond that, there’s a dynamic between holding up a mirror to society and repelling readers numbed by crime and bad news. It’s not sunshine journalism because we must tell people if there’s a serial rapist active in their area, but we do want to celebrate heroes in our communities – the cop who took bullets saving the hostage or the gogo who looks after 34 Aids orphans in Zululand.”
As well as offering a quality product created by well-trained and well-informed staff, media houses can maintain circulations and viability by leveraging content in fresh ways, believes Mary Pappaya, Avusa general manager in KZN. “Avusa, for example, already complements its local lifestyle stories in certain editions of the Sunday Times or Sowetan with local advertising.”
This response highlights two conundrums. On the sidelines, among the most local of all media, community media, competition is tougher than ever, says Genuine Media published and editor Mbali Dhlomo, a member of the KZN Commercial Publishers’ Forum. She reports determined encroachment by the large-scale media owners over the past year.
Caxton’s Eshowe Watch was renamed Zululand Eyethu as of July 2012 and published in both English and Zulu. It went from fortnightly to weekly and increased its print run fourfold to 24 400 from first quarter 2012 to second. To tap into the black market further, it also considerably extended its distribution area beyond Eshowe, Melmoth, Gingingndlovu and Ulundi, to Hlabisa and Nongoma, says editor Larry Bentley, and advertising has now picked up in response.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Country Life, in a sense the most local of all national magazines. It moved from Durban to Johannesburg in April, becoming the last Republican Press/Caxton magazine to switch off its lights on the KZN south coast after a history of about 50 years in the area. Caxton has long believed this move feasible, given Country Life’s strong national network of locally-based contributors, making the magazine a prototype of the best of the new ‘local media’, which can be exciting and quality-driven.
Angela Quintal also made a big move, but this was within the province. In November 2011, she moved from the Mercury to South Africa’s oldest continually published newspaper, The Witness, where she aims “to change some people’s perceptions of it as a parochial paper” by reinterpreting the interplay between local, national and international content.
“There’s a kickass attitude here – we don’t believe the media world’s necessarily dying in SA,” Quintal says. “We’re adapting to change and we’re prepared to experiment and invest in the newsroom and the product.
“We try to plan and create stories well ahead of time, especially front pages, that don’t rely on group content. With the Olympics, we didn’t have the resources to have staff there, but we were the first paper to get the local angle from Sizwe Ndlovu, the KZN oarsman in the gold-winning coxless four. We also had great plans with the Le Clos family – but were rather overtaken by Bert Le Clos becoming a media star!
“Our front pages are especially lively and challenging now – someone tweeted recently we have some of SA’s best front pages. With ‘The Spear’ controversy we even defaced our own masthead!”
Quintal is one of several editors noting just how far the media lines are blurring. Whether the medium is radio, TV or print, media consumers are increasingly becoming participants. Successful brands and titles give them respect and representativity, allowing them to interact online and on air with staffers and with each other.
“Research shows newspapers can continue to grow in the face of technology – and the electronic revolution requires content that addresses the needs of readers,” says the Tribune’s Rantao. “If we use it creatively, social media can give newspapers the outreach to excel and thrive locally.”
And giving consumers what they want to know is what it is all about. And for most of us, we want to know what is important to us as a community.
This story was first published in the October 2012 issue of The Media magazine.