Why we should celebrate our wacky tabloids

CAPE TOWN - Let's pause for a moment, shall we, and reflect on the Daily Sun's masterful command of tabloid journalism in Tuesday's lead story, under the headline: "Mourners' justice!" (accompanied, of course, with gobsmacking on-the-scene pictures):

Why we should celebrate our wacky tabloids
"DRIVERS slow down in their cars when they pass a funeral procession... it's a mark of respect for the departed," goes the intro, followed by: "But not this guy... he flashed past at 160km/h... crashed into the hearse and knocked down a mourner!SO THEY TOOK REVENGE..."

Amazing. So short and sharp and, boy, does it make me want to read on.

Would have told the tale

A broadsheet paper or a wire agency would have told the tale something like this: "A Free State man was taken to hospital at the weekend after he was assaulted by mourners at a Botshabelo funeral when he collided with one of the people in the funeral procession."

Ja well no fine... straight into the Nibs for that one (that's "News In Brief" to the uninitiated).

Now as online users, dear readers, we can largely assume that you are reasonably educated, probably employed and possibly monied so you may tut-tut at the Daily Sun's shameless sensationalism but I can tell you if you've ever worked on a newspaper subsdesk, you marvel at how skillfully edited the paper is.

As a former sub myself, I can tell you it's far easier to lay out and copy edit broadsheet newspapers than tabloids. Broadsheet design, for instance, often resembles Lego - or Tetris - as one plays with accommodating four to five stories and a couple of pics on one page as best you can. Sub-editing the words is usually a case of shaving superfluous words and repetitive thoughts and then coming up with a headline that is compelling, accurate and occasionally witty.

Have to make it count

But with tabloids, there is only one story on the front page (or one main story and a couple of secondaries on inside pages) so you really have to make it count and the presentation requires a lot of thought: it has to be really attention-grabbing but crystal clear in conveying the story while also accurate.

And that is what is so hard: to write snappy stories such as "Mourners' Justice!" - it was all of 12 paragraphs long - you have to be damn sure of what you want say and you have to get the facts straight. Uncertain facts and shortfalls in research are most easily masked by waffly writing, which you have the leeway for in broadsheets on account of the stories being far longer.

The Daily Sun has never made any secret of the fact that it employs a very clever subsdesk to make the copy sing but this is not the key thing that makes this paper so good - tabloid subs need very clear direction, inspiration and parameters from the top down and at the Daily Sun it is the partnership of publisher Deon du Plessis and editor Themba Khumalo which provides this.

Under the radar

Khumalo is one of most under-the-radar editors in the country in terms of projecting his personal profile in media circles (I've been trying to get an interview with him for a while), though I'm told he's famous in the country's townships. Du Plessis, the man who started the Daily Sun eight years ago for Media24 and grew it to become the country's biggest newspaper, is feared by many as his reputation for not suffering fools precedes him.

I felt a tad foolish recently when I asked Du Plessis in an interview about the future of newspaper how the business side of the Daily Sun was coming along as it had taken "a long time", said I, for advertisers to recognise the value of tabloids.

The Daily Sun, it turns out, is a very profitable business, he told me, and considering it was the country's very first full-blooded tabloid, he didn't think it had taken that long to reach profitability.

"It took about four years and I think that's pretty fast actually as far as newspapers go," Du Plessis said. "It was clear there was a gap in the market. The real issue was could we make a business out of it? We knew it would never fail; [we knew] it would go up and down but it was what people were looking for. It had never been done before so we broke new ground and we're now a very successful business. "

Award

The Daily Sun also received the award for the second-most profitable operation in Media24 at the company's recent in-house conference, he told me. Soccer Laduma, the weekly tabloid soccer newspaper, came tops.

Not only is the Daily Sun so big - with more than 430 000 average daily sales according to the latest ABC circulation figures - but it created many first-time newspaper readers that buy only this newspaper.

So the Daily Sun is the best way to reach these people in print and, a media planner told me, it's not just funeral plans and legal services that get value out of advertising with the Daily Sun but big corporates such as the banks and cellphone companies.

Of course, there are challenges ahead, as the paper suffered a circulation decline last year amid the recession - with its working-class readers affected deeply by job losses in the country. It fell back from the magic 500 000 sales mark over the past year and now begins the process of clawing back lost circulation.

Come of age

But no matter how much you might snicker at their wacky witchcraft stories or be affronted by their brutal crime stories, tabloids really have come of age in South Africa. And long may they last. Other new tabloids to follow in the Daily Sun's footprints, such as Media24's Son in the Western, Eastern and Northern Capes and the Independent-owned Daily Voice in Cape Town, are growing readers as they inform as much as they entertain.

And what those subs do with the English language is something to behold. They infuse journalese with vim and vigour; they use spunky colloquialisms and the unique South African sense of humour. The Daily Voice in particular takes great pride in talking to the readers of the Cape Flats in the jaunty manner of the Cape Flats.

Personally, I'd miss my occasional dose of the Daily Sun, even if it's not aimed at me. Who else would get away with this rambunctiously un-PC teaser on the front page of Tuesday's paper: "She's a master in a dress, she's a lady who plays chess!" Poetry for the masses, ek sê.

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