Giving readers what they want

2008-08-05 00:00

MEDIA and Cultural Studies lecturer Desiray Viney used to use the Daily Sun in her university classes as an example of poor journalism, highlighting its sensationalism, oversimplification and gore.

Today, the former Argus reporter-turned-academic argues that the popular tabloid is an effective tool for building democracy and empowering a historically marginalised sector of society. In the April edition of The Media magazine, Viney argues that any assessment of the success or failure of tabloids must rest with their consumers.

What changed her mind?

Viney says that after some of her students basically told her “to get a life”, arguing that the tabloid’s rocketing circulation figures suggested it must be doing something right, she actually read a copy of the Daily Sun.

“I realised that once you get beyond the first six pages of sensationalism and gore, there is much in the newspaper that is uplifting, interactive and socially responsible,” she said. She also found that the newspaper has a “more moral and civic agenda” than is appreciated by its critics. The newspaper, she said, “gives the readers ‘what they want’ in terms of content, literacy and social development”.

For Viney, her students’ challenge was the start of an intellectual journey that culminated recently in her completing a masters thesis on the role of tabloids in the new South Africa. In it, she argues that the Daily Sun plays a role in empowering readers to become “active agents of change” and offers them a sense of belonging and community.

Far from being passive receivers of trash, she says, Daily Sun readers are “concerned citizens, who are willing to confront issues, to challenge authority, to work towards a crime-free community and to take up whatever opportunities for development and empowerment come their way”.

Viney gives credit to the Daily Sun for inspiring the “tabloidisation” of a number of mainstream newspapers such as The Witness. In her thesis, which was submitted before Saturday’s Weekend Witness adopted its tabloid format, Viney writes: “Decision makers at that newspaper [The Witness] may shy away from calling it that [tabloidisation], but will expound on the rationale for changing its format to make it more readable with bite-sized items to widen its readership.”

She notes that there is “increasingly substantial overlap” in the South African newspaper industry between tabloids and community newspapers which “make more use of photographs, colloquial language and a personal tone”, and far less use of “erudite” language.

Viney says some media academics are “sceptical” of her research. Indeed, as Viney notes in her thesis, concerns have been expressed around the tendency of certain tabloids to present their readers as “primitive, lust-driven and credulous”. Other critics, notes Viney, have claimed that the Daily Sun trades in “stereotypes, xenophobia and fear” and some hint that tabloids violate the press code of conduct by promoting ignorance rather than realism.

But Viney’s principle concern was to hear the voices of Daily Sun readers and to learn first-hand what impact the newspaper had had on their lives.

After conducting pilot studies in Pietermaritzburg in 2004, she travelled to Johannesburg where the Daily Sun was already an established player. She interviewed the newspaper’s tough-talking co-founder Deon du Plessis and media researcher Jos Kuper. She conducted interviews with close to 50 readers while waiting in the outpatients section of Johannesburg General Hospital. Later, she returned to hold a focus-group meeting with regular readers aged between 23 and 60 from Soweto.

Most of the responses Viney got from readers are aired in her thesis, “because they’re so interesting”, she told me. “There was a strong sense that the newspaper is helping to create a public sphere of activity, not merely providing an opportunity to vent frustration,” Viney said. The sense of empowerment is reflected in comments like: “It changed our life. We can know how to manage our life now.”

The practical value of the newspaper is illustrated by its coverage of everyday issues such as housing, difficulties in obtaining ID books and burying loved ones. “It helps people so much ... they [Daily Sun reporters] are there to help”, is how another reader put it.

Viney found that readers had formed a strong relationship of trust with the Daily Sun, particularly around issues such as crime. The newspaper has a dedicated hotline for crime reports and invites its readers to use it.

There’s also a strong sense that the newspaper is getting things done — things that even the police can’t achieve, said Viney. As one interviewee said: “If you go to the Daily Sun, they follow up. The police don’t follow up.”

Other comments suggested that while readers don’t always like the kind of news carried in the newspaper, its publication is justified because of the moral lessons the story carries for the broader populace. Sensationalism, argues Viney, also plays a role in grabbing people’s attention and galvanising them into action.

It was during the focus-group meeting that Viney became aware of a widespread frustration around the presence of foreigners in the township. It made the recent xenophobic violence which erupted in South Africa less of a surprise. “The messages were there,” she said. “One of my interviewees told me that they were going to vote for the DA [Democratic Alliance], so even then [in 2006] readers were looking for [political] options, although these were not necessarily violent.”

For Viney — an educated, middle-class white person — the field research opened her eyes to a reality to which she was previously closed. “I enjoyed doing it. Having made the shift from sceptic myself, I know there is something in it,” she said. ‘Daily Sun’ profile • The Daily Sun is the brainchild of Deon du Plessis, who co-founded the newspaper with Fergus Sampson in 2002 after securing backing from Naspers. • It has the highest circulation of any newspaper in South Africa. The Audit Bureau of Circulations figures for 2007 released earlier this year put its circulation (copies sold) at 513 291. That excludes the copies that are passed on ... and on. • The Daily Sun is aimed at the ordinary man or woman in the street. A black-skinned mannequin dressed in blue overalls reportedly stands outside the office of editor Themba Khumalo to remind the staff members of their target market. • A poster stating: “We believe in witches” is reportedly pinned to the newsroom wall. • Some of this year’s more salacious headlines include “Tokoloshe is a bonking machine”; and “Bearded lady’s hubby says ... you’re not a real woman”. • Earlier this year, the Media Monitoring Project, in conjunction with the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, submitted a complaint to the Press Ombudsman and the Human Rights Commission about the Daily Sun’s use of headlines such as “Alien Terror” and “War on Aliens”, which they said had the effect of “supporting recent [xenophobic] violence by perpetuating stereotypes of foreign people.” • According to Viney, out of a total of 185 complaints made to the Press Ombudsman in 2005, only 21 were laid against the Daily Sun, Daily Voice and Son, and only one complaint against the Daily Sun was upheld.

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