Nowhere is local more lekker than in Cape Town. Nowhere is it reflected more than in the city’s much-loved tabloids. And it is here, in its local content and tabloids, that the Mother City’s media landscape has seen its greatest changes. And much like the chicken and the egg, it isn’t all that clear which came first – the community focus or the move to tabloid. Suffice it to say, nowhere else in the country has the rise of the tabloid been more profound than in Cape Town in recent years, while the content is driven by local events first and foremost.
From the introduction of the Daily Voice and Die Son several years ago to the more recently converted Argus, Capetonians have guzzled tabloids down with delight.
“The rise of the tabloid has been an interesting development in Cape Town and one of the biggest changes in recent years,” says columnist, analyst and former Cape Times editor Ryland Fisher. “While Cape Town media has always been community orientated there has definitely been a drive towards more local content in recent years and that is true across the various media outlets, be it radio, television or newspapers. It is an approach that seems to be working for them.”
While some might argue that it is a very insular and parochial approach, what it does allow for is clear targeting of specific audiences across the LSM spectrum.
Herein, says Cape Town Press Club committee member and communications specialist, Martin Slabbert, lies the secret of their success. “The essence of communication is ‘storytelling’. Whatever the topic is, whoever you are, you are telling someone’s story. The story of a politician who is trying to change the world, the story of a homeless person trying to make ends meet, the story of a celebrity trying to be a success. Make it personal and people are intrigued.”
He says the major focus on local community content in Cape Town speaks directly to the need of most people to wanting “their community story” told.
“It gives them a sense of ownership and makes them feel recognised and vindicated. It makes people feel involved and acknowledged,” says Slabbert, who produces a weekly radio talk show. “If I feel that you are talking to me and that you are telling my story, I will be far more inclined to take a personal interest in your continued existence as a media outlet.”
Says one journalist who has worked in the city for years, “In Cape Town we speak to just about all the communities, from the top of the upper class to the bottom of the lower class – there is a media outlet for each and every one. And media here know who they are talking to.”
It is possibly for this reason that the tabloid has been welcomed. It speaks to the large commuter community while the more serious broadsheet has remained focused on the upper LSM grouping. While commercial radio has yet to reach the echelons of its Johannesburg counterparts, community radio, however, leads the way, not only in Cape Town but countrywide. There is a station for just about every audience you can think of.
Fisher, who advocates a “more-the-merrier approach”, says it is in the host of community radio stations that the Cape’s changing approach comes to the forefront.
“We have seen the introduction of some really good community radio stations in recent years and that should be welcomed as competition if the market is good.”
He believes the success of the media in Cape Town lies in its content rather than its format or size. “It does not matter how big the newspaper is, but rather what it is packaging for its reader. The same is true for radio and television. Content has to be directed at a specific market and you have to meet that market’s needs. Your audience must be satisfied with what they are getting.”
Many say the Cape’s more local approach is serving this approach directly.
Professor Lizette Rabe of the University of Stellenbosch journalism department believes that Cape Town is at the forefront of change in the media industry, even though most of the outlets face the same challenges as their counterparts elsewhere in the country.
“It is not so strange that media developments are taking place in Cape Town if one takes into account that this is where Bush Radio became the first community radio station of its kind in the 1980s and was distributed clandestinely on audio cassettes. Today the modern Bush Radio is still a role model in the community radio environment,” she says.
Cape media has also finally come into its own, say the experts. Making it in media used to mean moving to Gauteng, while transferring to Cape Town was considered a career-limiting move. This is certainly no longer the case.
“The growth in the community media outlets especially has contributed greatly to growing the pool of talent in our local industry, so that we can show as much a diversity of voices that you see in Gauteng,” says Slabbert. “We maybe have some way to go still in catching up. I am concerned that a lack of funding of community media outlets will affect negatively their ability to deliver content, so that they can follow in the example of Soweto TV.”
Fisher notes the same concern, saying funding remains a major problem for the city’s media.
“While it is extremely exciting that CTV [Cape Town TV] will now be expanding its broadcasting with the announcement of a slot on DStv, one hopes they will be able to secure the necessary funding,” he says. “It is one of the most exciting television stations around thanks to its fresh content approach. And the fact that it will now have a wider audience bodes well for the city’s media achievements.”
According to CTV station manager Karen Thorne, the developments that will see them launch on DStv in September are a real boost for the station and a breath of fresh air in a media landscape that is dominated by conventional and commercially driven television.
“Our content is fresh, innovative and people-driven. It is often controversial and pushes boundaries. Our programming is about promoting debate while creating a rare space for authentic voices in a sea of media mediocrity.”
The television station, like the various community radio stations, has community participation at the core of its mandate and actively encourages Capetonians to get involved.
“Simply put – local is lekker,” says Rabe. “This has been proved through the decades but more so at present as it is now necessary to run community news as development journalism as well. In other words it has to be stimulating some form of development within your community.”
She cites a recent article on the front page of the Cape Times about a blind busker as a perfect example of the new approach. “No longer is it just community driven news, but it must come with elements of development or even a more watchdog approach to it.”
But, warns Rabe and the others, even in the face of change, the Cape’s media faces some serious challenges in the near future.
“Making sure they are bringing the right stories to the right people without being too parochial is but one of their challenges,” says Fisher, while Slabbert predicts that funding and training will be big obstacles.
Rabe agrees, saying that remaining relevant amidst all the challenges will top the agenda.
“In that regard there is no difference to media here or anywhere else. How to remain true to the ideals of the Fourth Estate, while still remaining financially viable until solutions are found, while at the same time dealing with the onslaught of the digital age are very real issues facing media across South Africa today.”