"The Daily Sun's wheels definitely came off a bit after Deon died, adding to the wheels that had already come off," says current editor Jeremy Gordin, looking comfortable in the chair once occupied by the person to whom he refers, flamboyant Daily Sun founder and publisher Deon du Plessis, who died suddenly of a heart attack in 2011.
"Say what you like about Deon – that he was mad, which of course he was – but he was passionate about tabloids and he worked bloody hard to make this one work, and since he died there has been little hands-on leadership," says Gordin, who was asked to join the paper as custodian editor after the resignation of former Isolezwe editor Mazwi Xaba in December 2012, after only six months on the job.
This leadership crisis seemed to bear out an opinion Business Day editor Peter Bruce expressed in one of his columns following Du Plessis's death, to the effect that the fates of the larger-than-life Afrikaner and the down-to-earth tabloid he had founded were most likely conjoined.
Du Plessis had been a powerhouse. When the established media poured scorn on the Daily Sun for publishing stories about tokoloshes, magic, muti murders and other witchcraft-related activities, he defended the reporting with a gusto that caused something of a rethink in the media environment as to what constituted relevant news in the South African context.
But by the time Du Plessis died sales had already dipped to 380 000 from a high of over half a million, not helped by the fact that the publication lost all its circulation data during a disastrous system transfer.
Under Xaba's leadership circulation sank closer to the 300 000 mark, and there was an embarrassing week in which Daily Maverick reporter Greg Nicolson outed the Daily Sun for conflating two entirely distinct episodes of mob violence, and for giving these a decidedly xenophobic tone. The paper has always been angry in the workerist sense, but it has seldom been sloppy. This was its lowest ebb.
Enter Gordin, a man as racially unsuited as Du Plessis had been to head a black working-class tabloid, but otherwise the natural heir to the Daily Sun throne, insofar as he had been part of the original team Du Plessis assembled to work on the idea. Gordin, in the spirit of Du Plessis, has a reputation for hunkering down when challenged, and one has only to scroll to the bottom of his unfailingly provocative weekly column on James Myburgh's Politicsweb to see how he delights in jousting with his many trollers. He is also, as was Du Plessis, something of a dwarstrekker (a maverick) in media circles, an insider rebel, on the one hand a former associate editor of such established mainstays as the Sunday Tribune, the Sunday Independent and the Sunday Argus, and on the other the man who launched Playboy SA and wrote a positivist biography of Jacob Zuma, all the while railing against the bent of political correctness that entered the mainstream media after 1994.
These traits and truancies eminently qualify him to continue the fight for the relevance of tokoloshes, should it please him to do so.
But does it please him to do so?
"You might have noticed a thinning of tokoloshes in recent months," says Gordin.
"That was Deon's thing, and it started to fall away under Xaba. I had my start on the Rand Daily Mail in the mid-1970s and so the stories I'm attracted to are the ones that stick it to anyone who is in authority," he says.
Call it beginner's luck, but within a few weeks of assuming his custodial role at the paper Gordin was breaking some of the hottest stories of his career as an editor. In February, for example, the Daily Sun broke the Mido Macia story, about a taxi driver from Mozambique who died after being dragged behind a police van and then beaten to death by policemen in Daveyton.
"If you listen carefully to the video you can hear people shouting 'take a picture, send it to the Daily Sun', which was just what the doctor ordered," says Gordin.
The story was still causing outrage around the world when the tabloid broke a story about an elderly woman who was savagely beaten by a retail store security guard for alleged theft. This too had been caught on video and sent to the Daily Sun and, just like the Macia video, it went viral.
"We've woken up to the fact that people these days carry cellphones that can take pictures and record video. Given our vast reading community, which is estimated at over five and a half million, the space of citizen-driven journalism is where we are aiming to be increasingly," Gordin says.
Some stiff challenges remain, however. "The price has gone up too high, for one thing – only over his dead body would Deon have gone above R1. We're trying to rebuild the circulation, which is at 330 000 now. And we're still looking for a black editor," says Gordin.
ABC circulation figures released in March, however, put the paper's circulation at 296 489.
"We'll get there," he says, "because the team here is right for the job. They're all a bit mad, in the great tradition of newspapers, which seems to be dying out in the established papers. You must take a walk downstairs to meet Chris Mokoena."
It's 8.30am when I head downstairs to find Mokoena, who takes the rather Homeric job title of Sun Defender. It is a Wednesday, and the modern glass and tile vestibule of the Media24 mother ship in Auckland Park is crowded with men and women from the highveld's kasis, most of them thumbing complimentary copies of the day's Daily Sun. A neat man wearing a short Lucifer goatee strides out from the building's innards and waves a few of them through the security turnstiles and down a corridor to a classroom-sized office, which smells of the paraffin clinging to the clothes of those who are already there, seated around the walls. Mokoena sits down at his desk, and calls forward a middle-aged woman.
"What can I do for you, my love?"
The woman explains she has been blacklisted for failure to pay someone or other, and yet money continues to come off her account. The Sun Defender picks up the phone and dials the someone or other in question. A female Afrikaans voice comes piping over the loudspeaker.
"Hello Jacqueline," says Mokoena, "How are you today? I'm in the best of spirrrits, thank you. I have Charity Nkosi here and she has a problem …"
Mokoena's personal blend of confidence and decorum, kasi-speak and courtroom jargon, quickly opens avenues for recourse that have been closed to Nkosi for over a year, and she leaves the lair of the Sun Defender beaming.
The next in line is an elderly, beret-wearing man who has a problem he prefers to relate to Mokoena in hushed tones. He bought a product advertised a month ago in the Daily Sun, but it has not arrived in spite of his repeated calls to the salesperson. This is not the first time Mokoena has heard this story, and gone are his glowing spirits.
"Chief," he says, connecting to the salesperson's cellphone, "it's Chris Mokoena here from the Daily Sun."
The man on the other end of the line begins to dissemble at the mere mention of the publication's name, oblivious to the fact that he is on loudspeaker. Mokoena jams him comes down the line like a drill sergeant.
"No, you're going to listen to me today, chief. You're not going to come from wherever you come from and do as you please in Mzansi; that's not how it works here. Let me tell you what you're going to do …"
When he puts down the phone the folks in the waiting room, who range from youths in skull caps to alopecic grandmothers, begin clapping and shouting affirmations.
"It's true, it's true, you can't come to Mzansi and do that," one old fellow says to nobody in particular.
In the canteen on a coffee break Mokoena explains how he became Jo'burg's off-camera Judge Judy.
"I studied law and went into business but that wasn't working out too well, so when a friend of mine asked whether I'd be interested in becoming the consumer watchdog at the Daily Sun I agreed. On paper it is easy: you need to know your Consumer Protection Act and you need to be pushy, but I'm not going to lie, it gives you a fucking headache, dealing with other people's problems each day," he says.
The past four years have seen Mokoena go well beyond the call of duty.
"I've become passionate," he says, "especially about helping senior citizens, because, eish, it's a problem for them, man, especially when it comes to these administrators, debt collectors, lawyers.
"The people who come to me first approach the National Credit Regulator and the National Debt Mediation Association, and these institutions probe and probe and it seems like the probes never come to an end and in the meanwhile these peoples' lives are blocked."
In his book Tabloid Journalism in South Africa: True Story! local media expert Professor Herman Wasserman writes that, where overseas tabloids are generally associated with the lighter side of life, South African tabloids are mostly taken seriously by their readers, that they "have created a platform where readers can vent their feelings of marginalisation".
Mokoena embodies this cathartic function. He is a once-a-week Michael to the unfair economic dragons bedevilling the working class.
When we return to the office he flips around a sign on his office door that says "gone fishing", and resumes his position behind his desk, under a FHM girly poster. He picks up the phone. "Chief," he says, "ja no fine, I'm in the best of spirrrrrits."
The news in each edition of the Daily Sun is set at 1pm each day.
The meeting I am kindly granted access to starts, appropriately enough, with the latest from the soccer front: Chiefs on the brink of unprecedented success, Black Leopards facing relegation.
Sports editor Mathews Mpete asks whether, given that a recent Kaizer Chiefs front page sold a record number of papers, his story can get top billing again.
"You're suggesting we throw away news to put in sport?" an elderly man says with concern. This is Richard McNeill, the British tabloid expert responsible for most of the front pages.
"You don't have the right respect for football," Gordin chaffs.
Relevant news angle
"What if we just give it an ear?" says deputy editor Reggy Moalusi.
"You mean the top right-hand corner of the paper, not an ear ear?" says Gordin, feeding a long-running joke about body parts apropos a photograph on the boardroom table of a dismembered hand, taken in Diepsloot.
The Daily Sun might have a reputation for grisly imagery but nobody here can find a relevant news angle that would carry the photograph, and they won't run it for the purposes of gratuitous sensation, so it gets cut. As each news item is presented, debates about relevance and appropriateness intensify, as do the irreverent laugh-or-cry jokes.
There's the story about the Mozambican man who failed to rise from the dead, in spite of assurances given by a Mpumalanga pastor that this would be the case.
"What was the dead man's name," Gordin asks the subeditor.
"It's Lucky, shame," she says – cue much laughter and an assault of puns.
"As Lucky would have it!"
"Unlucky Lucky still dead," says Moalusi, and Gordin reckons that's the one: "Great, poster it", and the meeting moves on to a tricky story about a woman who has had seven children in order to exploit the country's welfare system. It's as much a story as it is a widely held and subtly racist myth – "baby baking", as one staffer refers to it, and a kind of alarm goes off in the boardroom.
"I'm worried that the children will be teased at school the next day," someone says.
"The crucial thing is that she had all these children not because she feels maternal but because she wants the money," says Moalusi.
The sub reads the quote: "With the five times R280 I get for each child I can buy clothes and food."
Moalusi grimaces. "We could just as easily see her as a caring mother who uses the pension to buy essentials for her children. Her thesis and our thesis could be very different. Let's can it," he says, and there's general grumbling about the reporter's failure to clarify these critical issues.
This is not, it is very clear, the same newsroom that referred to non-South African Africans as "aliens" during the xenophobic violence that rocked certain townships in 2008. The jokes aside, the atmosphere is nothing if not caring.
There's an unusual disconnect between the reporters who feed the Daily Sun with material and the office staff who sort, groom, approve and package it for publication.
The primary requirement is that the reporters live and work among the working class. Gordin is the first to admit that there's no scope for writers on his paper.
"I will proudly go on record to say that we must have the oldest staff in the country. We have a team of whiter-than-white rewriters who are mostly in their 70s, who Deon used to refer to as 'the mercenaries'. The copy comes in, and it can be very rough, and they turn it into Daily Sun-ese."
Foolishly curious, I offer to submit a piece of work to this mill. It's about a man I met who walks the length of the Jukskei River every week, searching for the golf balls that roll down from some of the city's most luxurious golf estates. I write it as I would for clients like the Mail & Guardian, putting energy into description, fleshing out historical ironies.
I fully expect it to be butchered, and for the sensational aspects to be amped and the nuances jettisoned. The piece that comes back is half the length but retains all the important information.
It is not sensational; it merely retrieves the central character from the tangle of cleverness I had obscured him behind.
I read about his problems as if for the first time. This is great copy. I am humbled.