Media academics have decried the incursion into the traditional straight-laced newspaper domain of the upstart, rowdy tabloids. To a certain extent, they are right to be concerned that context, nuance and analysis are lost when journalism is reduced to short, punchy stories – the print version of the sound-bite.
But tabloid stories are not all about tokoloshes and flying gogos. Increasingly, tabloid-style reporting is finding its way online, into the mainstream media and into our consciousness. The news-seeking behaviour of our busy readers has changed dramatically with so many online and mobile information choices on offer. Tabloid-style reporting caters for the new habits of news audiences.
There are so very many lessons we can learn from tabloids. No proof of this can be stronger than the success of the Daily Sun – which now circulates 336 000 daily, three times the size of its nearest competitor. Its inimitable mixture of vernacular slang (4-5 for instance), eyeball-grabbing headlines, and lower-LSM street smarts are among the many tricks to be learned by all journalists from good tabloid reporting.
While the circulation and ad spend revenue of most newspapers falls steadily, and as a model for successfully making money from websites has not yet materialised to rescue them (some would argue will not), many observers believe print will go the way of the dodo. And yet, in countries such as India and South Africa, tabloids have successfully bucked this trend.
And it’s not surprising,; tabloid-style stories are accessible, they speak to their audience about things their audience care about, about the things that their audiences are familiar with. And their audiences speak back…. Take as an example the call centre of the Daily Sun. People feel that they get heard. And want desperately to be heard.
And we, as audiences so want to hear… Service delivery problems are boring, but how a girl was raped walking for 10 minutes to the closest toilet because she had no other option is a story to inflame us. It makes the abstract issue of service delivery real.
Good tabloid stories also draw images and words together so well. The picture complements the copy and draws the reader into a copy in a way that mainstream press don’t always get right. It’s not just the use of big or many images, it’s how the images tell the story. All graphical elements… sidebars, pictures and multiple stories on the page often blend seamlessly into the overall narrative. This newer form of news writing breaks up big chunks of text to keep the reader engaged.
And great tabloid headlines! Punning might not everyone’s idea of the height of wit, but you will laugh, and you will remember. And other classics, no doubt pop into your mind immediately ‘Goat made me pregnant’, ‘How do you solve a problem like Korea’ (Okay, the second is from the archives of Google, but has had me humming ever since). For those who haven’t viewed The Sound of Music, the original song is ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria’.
Both good tabloid stories and great headlines also get people talking. When the popular national discourse seems to get set by the latest season of Survivor, Masterchef, or (even worse) Keeping up with the Kardhashians, tabloids get people talking about actual (although this is sometimes debatable) news.
Of course there will always be a role for good investigative journalism and outstanding features, but the success story of the future on the African continent will be vibrant, quality (legally-defensible), tabloid content delivered to readers’ cellphones – and journalists these days have to produce short-and-sharp online and mobile content.
For these reasons, the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ) will be offering training on tabloid journalism in May 2013 together with one of the best tabloid newsmen around, Raymond Joseph. Joseph is a renowned tabloid guru who helped set up the Daily Voice. Find out more here.
Sandra Roberts is the Writing Unit Manager at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism.