Sex, mags and videotape

You may not read heat magazine, but you have no doubt heard about the story the celebrity mag carried in its pages this week. Former Bok captain Joost van der Westhuizen was allegedly caught on tape cavorting with a young woman, snorting white powder and playing with a sex toy.

The videotape, which made headlines in the Rapport newspaper, has caused a furore.

Everyone, from rugby fans to media commentators, is debating whether the media is justified in exposing the alleged misdemeanour. Heat had a special showing of the video for journalists earlier this week.

The offending video was bought by heat for what the magazine’s editor Melinda Shaw described as not a “huge amount of money”. Shaw told the Times newspaper that the weekly publication regularly buys celebrity pictures and that this buy did not exceed its weekly budget.

Shaw stands by her decision to run with the article and firmly believes the tape is not a scam.

But Van der Westhuizen has denied outright that the tape is real and his lawyers are having the tape analysed by forensic experts.

The saga comes at a time when the outlook for the print media is bleak the world over, with renowned publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post experiencing plummeting profits.

In South Africa the outlook is no less depressing. Publishing powerhouse Media24 is looking to retrench 10% to 20% of its editorial staff at its Afrikaans newspapers—Die Burger, Beeld, Volksblad and Rapport—according to The Media magazine.

But, according to the Magazine Publishers’ Association of South Africa (MPASA), despite declining circulations in most magazine categories and severe pressure on advertising revenue in the past 18 months, the local magazine market appears to be fairly stable.

Between December 2007 and September 2008 48 titles opened, showing industry growth of 11%. But since September several magazines have closed, including Mooiloop (formerly Wegbreek), Your Child, TopBike, Men’s Health Living and Maverick.

Media24’s magazine division remains the largest player in the local game and owns heat‘s publisher, Uppercase Media.

Although the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures are not available yet, expectation in the industry is that circulation numbers may decline.

Publisher of The Media magazine Sandra Gordon believes that given the tough economic conditions and depleting disposable income magazine sales figures could take a hit.

But readership figures could rise. Circulation figures record copies sold, while readership figures indicate the number of times a publication is passed on to others to read.

In heat’s case, readership is up.

According to the latest figures available from the South African Advertising Research Foundation (Saarf), heat’s readership grew from between 438 000 and 544 000 in the second half of 2007 to between 468 000 and 578 000 readers in the first half of 2008.

Media24 chief executive Francois Groepe believes that the core business of magazines is to use compelling content to communities with shared interests.

“As long as we continue doing just that, magazine brands—in particular strong brands with a loyal support base—will continue to survive as viable businesses,” he says.

Gordon says that South African celebrities are not as used to hounding by the paparazzi as those in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, where the tabloid industry is entrenched.

Maintaining the balance between people’s right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy is something that is still being contested in South Africa’s media industry, she says. “I bet my bottom dollar that we will see more of these [scandals],” says Gordon.

Shaw could not respond by the time of going to print.

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