The readers and lives of tabloid newspapers march to the heartbeat of the country, says a woman who should know.
Minette Ferreira, general manager of Media 24’s Daily Sun/Sunday Sun/City Press/Sondag, says reader’s lives “are complex but also tremendously exciting and fast changing. Our tabloids tackle all aspects of these complexities and give our readers advice and guidance on how to navigate their daily lives… whilst still entertaining them”.
Behind the scenes, the Sunday tabloid market has become increasingly competitive as Marvin Meintjies, the recently appointed editor of the competition, Times Media’s Sunday World, makes sweeping changes, appointing some seriously hot talent and redesigning a paper that made the news with its own scandals – think Kuli Roberts’ ill-advised column on coloured women.
Meintjies has redesigned the paper to update and upgrade its visual language.
“The old design was tired. It looked amateurish and cluttered. Far too busy. Trashy is the word that springs to mind. In tone, in content, in presentation,” he says. “I think the last redesign, several years ago, was done in a very stale English tabloid tradition so it was a matter of throwing that out and breaking some very bad habits the layout guys had formed… this was not easy.”
Meintjies says his team took a different view of the traditional front page, changing the mindset from ‘page’ to ‘cover’. “That allows some lateral thinking and a lot more freedom to be creative. We now regularly use a graphic as our main cover image,” he explains. The cover is a “a window into what’s inside the paper, sure, but it’s also a statement – it must have impact,” he says, adding that they spend a lot of time creating and refining the cover concept. “Our Guptagate cover was a marker for where we’re going. There was no budget for a design consultant. So it’s all hands on deck. It’s been a real team effort. And it continues to be, as the paper evolves. We’ll be adding some new features soon,” he says.
Meintjies wants to escape the “trashy tabloid” tag, and has a distinct picture of the Sunday World reader in mind. He says readers of the paper are “largely young, black middle-class people with complex lives and a variety of interests. They’re smart. They’re going places. So we can’t serve up a newspaper that’s not going to resonate with them,” he says.
“There were some really bad editorial lapses and the content was poor. Restoring credibility is key to winning over readers who would ordinarily not buy Sunday World and, we do want to win over more readers in the mid to upper LSMs. There are a huge number of people who feel there’s no longer a ‘home’ for them in the Sunday newspaper market. I hope to meet their needs,” he says.
Like Meintjies, Ferreira believes there is a good future for good Sunday tabloids. “Yes, there is a lot of spunk in the Sunday tabloid market… weekend readers yearn for a good balance of news, sport and entertainment. And that is exactly the needs that a well-balanced Sunday tabloid should address,” she says.
“A title like Sunday Sun has 47% of it’s readers between LSM 7-10. Although Sunday tabloids fight against the perception that the broadsheets offer the quality read and readers, our readership offers some serious value in consumers that has money to spend,” she says.
It’s a competitive market, in terms of content and winning advertising. Meintjies says unique content is the key otherwise “there’s absolutely no reason for anybody to buy you”.
“It’s a NEWSpaper,” he says. “Not a gossip magazine. That’s why being the first to tell the world about the big fat Gupta wedding was important. That’s why our reporting on the whites-only enclave of Kleinfontein was important. Ditto our splash on Savita Mbuli having to be protected by bodyguards because of death threats etc. Our competitors have had to follow-up on stories our little newspaper broke. That’s gratifying as we don’t have a massive staff and bureaus around the country. It’s also important for a newspaper to have some personality, some ‘flavour’ too,” he says.
What of advertising? The Sunday tabloids don’t just compete on breaking news, but also on ad spend.
“If we build it, they will come!” says Meintjies. “We reach a smart, urban audience that advertisers should be talking to. Our problem has been that some media buyers took one look at the old product and said: ‘Hmm, maybe not.’ Hopefully, as they see the changes we’re making, they’ll change their minds too.”
Ferreira says while the Sunday Sun has experienced circulation pressures since the beginning of the year, it has turned the corner in terms of advertising income and recorded a solid financial performance. “It has consistently improved it’s editorial content and has grown it’s readership figures to around the 2.6 million mark – the second largest readership on a Sunday. It is a well packaged, tightly edited tabloid with some serious entertainment value,” she says. Ferreira says the paper is attracting big corporate brand advertising from amongst others the telecommunications, banking and media industries.
Meintjies recently attracted some top talent to join him on his quest to turn Sunday World into a force to be reckoned with. Fred Khumalo, Babalwa Shota, Nkululeko Ncana, Darryl Hammond and Nidha Narandes have joined the staff.
“Fred’s our headline columnist. He brings with him a loyal following of readers who love his irreverent take on things. Babalwa’s our new features editor; she’ll add her unique touch to our social and lifestyle pages. Darryl, our picture editor, brings his keen eye and wonderful sense of humour. Nidha, our talented new chief sub, has to manage my high expectations and mentor our subs. Nkululeko brings his experience in political and investigative reporting. All of them are key people to have around and will help ease the burden on myself and the news editor, Amos Mananyetso,” he says.
Meintjies says getting them on board was “as simple as laying out my plans, broadly, and asking them if they wanted to be part of something different. Some had worked with me previously, so they did not need much convincing”.
And he reiterates his point: “If we build it, they will come!” Readers, advertisers, the lot.