Tabloid fever hits Cape Town

Red-top tabloids are turning millions of blue-collar South Africans into newspaper readers. The relentless diet of sex, sin, sensation and sport has outraged some - but you can't argue with the sales, says Judy van der Walt
Click to follow

I t's Monday morning in Cape Town, after a massive storm hit the city the night before. At the morning conference of the two-month-old Daily Voice tabloid, the Brophy and Murphy show is rocking.

It's Monday morning in Cape Town, after a massive storm hit the city the night before. At the morning conference of the two-month-old Daily Voice tabloid, the Brophy and Murphy show is rocking.

The executive editor Karl Brophy and the chief designer Alan Murphy each squeeze a pink rubber stress-ball shaped like a breast. A nipple shoots out at a deformed angle as Murphy has the brainwave: "What about tomorrow's page three? Get the photographer to shoot a girl in wellies and umbrella and nothing else."

Already the Daily Voice has been renamed the Daily Vice by one of Cape Town's largest churches, which also blamed it for the city's long-running drought. As the rain falls steadily, Brophy and Murphy wonder what they will be blamed for now.

The Daily Voice is the Independent Newspapers group's addition to the country's booming tabloid industry, kickstarted by Johnnic Media in 1999 with the Sowetan Sunday World. The Independent group's main newspaper publishing rival Naspers launched the Sunday Sun in 2001, followed by sister papers the Daily Sun and the Afrikaans Kaapse Son (Cape Sun), which expanded to Johannesburg in November last year and then became the daily Son in April.

For the many South Africans outraged by this unprecedented barrage of tabloids and their unrelenting content of sex and scandal, Brophy - a former spin-doctor for the Irish government - has a straightforward answer: "That is intellectual snobbery at its worst, and exceptionally patronising. There are more than three million people now reading tabloids who never read newspapers before. This is good for society and good for advertisers."

The latest available circulation figures (for December 2004) show that the tabloids have added almost 1.3 million weekly sales to a previously stagnant newspaper pool - and they claim an astonishing three to seven readers per copy.

Bryan Gibson, the media director of the advertising agency Ogilvy Cape Town, which has blue-chip clients such as Volkswagen and the financial group Old Mutual, is excited by all this. "It's brilliant. It's a whole new market, and although there is resistance from some of our clients, you just can't ignore such sales."

South Africa's broadsheets have so far stuck resolutely to the large format, and the new tabloids are all in the "red-top" category of scandal, sex and sensation. Brophy says one reason for the success of the tabloids is the fundamental difference between broadsheets and tabloids: "The broadsheets preach to readers what they should think, rather than reflecting what people really are thinking."

A scan through Daily Voice back copies is revealing: there are stories about spaceships, paranormal teenagers and Jesus appearing in a toilet window in the suburb of Lavender Hill, sparking a stream of pilgrims, with the headline, "Jesus lives in my toilet".

Brophy maintains that the "voice" of the title is what it's all about. "We provide a service to the socio-economic classes who have not previously been franchised by South Africa's newspapers. Our readers are mostly blue-collar workers who have tough lives but make ends meet and have a good sense of humour. The broadsheets do not reflect their day-to-day lives."

The tabloids have been successful in empowering people. The Daily Voice's "Kill the Bush" campaign resulted in the mayor of Cape Town pledging to cut down a thicket where children and women have been raped and murdered. Immoral headmasters; child prostitution under the eyes of non-acting policemen; discriminating insurance companies; and "the evil slave-driver" who exploits rural women as domestic workers - all have been exposed by the Daily Voice.

The tabloids' straplines reflect this. The Daily Sun is "The People's Paper", and the Daily Voice is known by its unofficial logo: "Ons skrik vir niks" - "we aren't scared of anyone". Tabloid readers have huge affection for and loyalty to their papers, which follow an aggressive editorial style. Brophy says: "We don't equivocate. We go heavy on a story and we find someone to blame - 'This is the man, this is where he lives.'"

Brophy and Murphy are Irishmen seconded by Independent Newspapers to launch the Daily Voice and to apply the recipe for success that is the result of extensive research in the UK. Brophy sums it up: "We despise white space. Headlines have to fit perfectly. We are picture- and people-driven. We don't write about" - he sniffs - "institutions and physical buildings, but about the people in them."

So far, the Daily Voice has not captured its slice of the ads pie; the main advertisers are a tombstone factory shop, adult entertainment and camera dealers. Yet Brophy is confident: "Advertising follows circulation. But some people in the advertising industry are still snobbish about us and let their own prejudices influence their advertising purchase. Soon their clients will realise they have to be in our paper.

"Just as South Africa's major retailers are the anchor tenants in a shopping mall in a working-class suburb, our paper will be the future platform for those retailers. It baffles me why all the newspapers launched here - like This Day and the Sunday Independent - chase the low-volume upper market. Our readers may spend only a quarter of what the more affluent consumer spends, but there are seven times more people who are our readers. And experience has shown that, proportionately, our paper may eventually have a higher number of top-spending consumers than the broadsheets," Brophy says.

The Daily Voice, so far distributed only in Cape Town, prints 100,000 copies a day and aims to have 200,000 national sales within three years.

By the end of morning conference, Brophy and Murphy are squeezing their stress-breasts harder as it turns out that a football ref who was beaten up doesn't look as bad as expected, and proof is missing of a celebrity "shagging" his wife's best friend.

But, next day, the paper runs the kind of exclusive its readers expect: "COP COCK-UP RUINED MY LIFE: Innocent man tells of jail sex hell as he's dumped in cell by mistake". It's the authentic Daily Voice.