/ 5 October 2004

A Titillating Trend

There are two things you can say about weekly newspapers over the last year. First, they played a central role in most of the big stories in South African media’s year of shame. Second, the sector as a whole is on the rise in terms of both revenue and sales. Which just goes to show that controversy is a newspaper’s best friend.

While City Press became implicated in the Ngcuka smear campaign and suffered the further ignominy of Vusi Mona-Gate, the Saturday Star, Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times and Sunday Independent slugged it out (mainly in the columns) over the Darrel Bristow-Bovey plagiarism row. Funny then, that despite all the guff and hot air about the dull thud of journalistic standards, local newspaper trends mirror the macrocosm. All over the world, the broadsheets, hard news and carefully weighted commentary are stagnant while the tabloids, big boobs, football stars and anatomical anomalies are soaring.

Fittingly, in South African weekly newspapers the biggest gains in circulation belong to the Sunday Sun and Sunday World tabloids, gaining of over 19% and 8% respectively in the ABC audit at the end of 2003. Sarel Du Plessis, Media24’s general manager of Sunday Sun, City Press and Rapport, is pretty upbeat about this. And with the Sunday Sun‘s latest ABC sitting at 172,050 (Jan-Jun 2004), he has every reason to be. “It is continually growing. Three years ago it was launched within the infrastructure of City Press. Three years down the line the Sunday Sun is a completely separate media team, with an editorial complement of 18 people. I think very important to note is that the newspaper is profitable.”

Last year the Sunday Sun drew ad revenue to the tune of R6,7-million with the Sunday World at R12,3-million (AIS/Adex: 2003). While this is still way off the revenues of the top broadsheets like Sunday Times and Rapport, there’s a potentially huge upside going forward. And with the bullish international trend to back them up, media houses outside Media24 will no doubt be keen to take a strong stab at the tabloid market.

“I am sure that Johncom, with its recent acquisition of the Sunday World, will look at what they can do to enter the market segment a little bit more effectively—bearing in mind that Sunday World was there first,” says Du Plessis. “As a broadsheet it didn’t work. When the infrastructure of cost and sales did not make sense anymore, they went to a tabloid version and to some extent a little bit closer to what the UK tabloid market demands, and it did well. But when we launched the Sunday Sun it was a little more daring, let’s say. The topless babes we had, had a very good effect on sales, although this is not something we are pushing heavily anymore.”

For their part, Johncom have been extremely tight-lipped about plans for the Sunday World since their procurement of the title from Nail. While the paper has seen good increases in circulation, one can only expect that Sunday World will shed whatever remnants of the broadsheet it carried over and go head to head with the Sunday Sun in the tabloid arena. Otherwise, it is widely held, the paper will start to cannibalise the market share of Johncom’s leviathan, the Sunday Times.

With its eclectic mix of hard investigative and political news, commentary and tabloidism, the Sunday Times is the largest circulating newspaper in the country, with an average of 505,717 copies sold a week (ABC July-December 2003). It also rakes in the ad spend titos, earning a whopping R308,6-million in 2003, with the main body alone attracting R172,3-million (AIS/Adex: 2003). In comparison, everyone else is a pauper.

The other popular English-language Sunday broadsheet, City Press, has been bleeding badly for a long time. The credibility gap created by the Hefer commission and sacked editor Vusi Mona’s extracurricular business dealings saw the paper’s circulation drop 20,000 buyers per ABC for three reporting periods in a row, coming to rest at 167,885 copy sales at the end of 2003 (ABC July-December 2003).

“Last year was a tough one for City Press,” says Du Plessis. “There’s no doubt in my mind there was a credibility gap. With everything that happened around the previous editor and the Hefer commission, you can understand why the newspaper was going through some tough times. However—I did a conservative estimate of the marketing value that City Press got through the live soapy of the Hefer commission on TV, and what appeared in print. It was about R24-million worth. And the interesting thing is that it created a top-of-mind awareness around City Press that was not there before.

“But the real development and growth of City Press happened this year in February when we appointed Mathatha Tsedu as the editor. There was a lot of controversy around him at the time, but we did our homework very carefully prior to making the appointment. When Mathatha came on board, the issue of the credibility gap was tackled first of all. Mathatha is a very professional and dedicated editor. And he absolutely believes in the credibility of the content of City Press.”

The latest ABC finally offers City Press some good news, which bears out the above assessment. The paper is up by nearly 10,000 sales to 177,615 (ABC Jan -Jun 2004). Under Tsedu it has added Wall Street Journal content to its business section, and has focused more on hard news and insightful commentary, removing itself from tabloid journalism. As Du Plessis puts it: “It’s a serious newspaper for a serious newspaper reader.” And financially the newspaper looks sound too, attracting spend of R59,8-million last year (AIS/Adex: 2003).

The other weekly under Du Plessis, Afrikaans title Rapport, could be witnessing a stabilisation after a steady downward curve in circulation over the last few years. It is currently pegged at 325,807 (ABC Jan-Jun 2004), almost 1,000 up on the end of 2003, but there’s no getting away from the fact that at the end of 1998 it was at over 360,000. Du Plessis explains: “If I have to be honest, it has to do with the editorial content of what makes the Sunday newspaper work. If you go back over the last four years and look at some of the front page stories, we had some very interesting developments that affected the Afrikaans entertainment, business and sports markets. Rapport in particular is extremely sensitive to what happens in society for it to have a good sale.

“Now in the last few years Saambou folded and that affected the Afrikaans market dramatically. People like Tola Fourie and Bles Bridges, those icons of Afrikaans culture, were killed or died in freak accidents. When that happens we have a very high sale. It shoots up dramatically. It sounds terrible, but those things have not happened over the last year and a half. We haven’t seen those kinds of developments. Saambou is over and all the famous South African singers are dead— and it affects our sales.”

Still, despite the Afrikaans music icon blues, Rapport‘s market is deemed highly desirable by advertisers and media agents, and the paper earned a tidy R162-million from ad sales last year (AIS/Adex: 2003).

With the rapid growth of tabloids in the weekly newspaper market, the Mail & Guardian has initiated an interesting strategy to augment sales and revenue – it is producing a series of special interest lifestyle magazines. But that is not necessarily why the paper has seen a modest rise of about 2,000 copy sales in their latest ABCs (Jan-June 2004). Publisher Trevor Ncube explains:

“We are about 300 copies shy of 40,000, and our target is to be at 45,000 by mid-year 2005. So we are pleased with the kind of numbers we have achieved. It’s early days yet to tell if the magazines are working, but the “Leisure” magazine has done reasonably well in terms of budget expectations. The idea is that we want to hit two birds with one stone with our magazines, growing circulation and augmenting our revenues. So these are new revenue streams we are pursuing. By April next year we want to have one of these specialist magazines coming out every week.”

Despite the move to add greater value to the Mail & Guardian, it is highly unlikely that the newspaper will alter its initial proposition and include more tabloid-style information to augment circulation.

“We have claimed the position of being the leader in terms of investigative journalism and we are very proud of that,” says Ncube of the struggle to avoid dumbing down the content. “It is more challenging. We have to dig deep into our resources to get the best pool of journalists. We are not going for scandal for scandal’s sake. In terms of our business model we would love to sell 100,000 copies, but we realise that our appeal is to the thinking person and that constrains us.”

The other weekly to attract a similarly undersized, yet “thinking” readership is the Sunday Independent, published by Independent News & Media. The paper has a small staff and relies heavily on gathering quality content from across Independent News & Media’s international network. Its circulation is currently pinned at 41,037 (ABC July-Dec 2003), marginally outperforming rival Mail & Guardian.

“People who read the Mail & Guardian also read the Sunday Independent,” confirms Ncube. “We complement each other, really. People read the Mail & Guardian over the week, but find that on a Sunday the Independent title is a good addition.”

Ultimately, weekly broadsheets – with their longer lead times – tend to break most of South Africa’s big and important stories, thus setting the tone for the week’s news coverage. But it’s a relatively established market, with smaller upside on circulation growth. On the other hand the tabloids offer very little useful news or information. What they do is skillfully exploit our voyeuristic tendencies, providing frivolous content that appeals to a burgeoning market. The upswing is that the tabloid enhances South Africa’s reading culture, and the hope is that eventually the tabloid market will graduate to the broadsheets. It may just take a very long time.