Slumming with the Sun

SO YOU DON’T LIKE NASTY TABLOIDS THAT DEBASE OUR SOCIETY with preposterous stories of tokoloshes and gory muthi murders infused with a solid dose of xenophobia, racism and sexism? Well, the Daily Sun isn’t talking to you. Who it is talking to is the people, and the people have spoken. And four million of them are reading Deon du Plessis’s rock ’n’ roll newspaper every single day.

Monday 28 January 2008

MAN SHOOTS BOSS DEAD!

…and ends up dead himself!

SENZO Mbatha (33) recently got fired from his job at a big steel company.

He hated the man he thought was responsible for his problems – his former boss, Stanley Radebe (53).

SO MBATHA WENT CRAZY … HE WENT TO RADEBE’S OFFICE AND SHOT HIM DEAD!

Ruddy-faced and grunting, the reigning king of South African tabloid journalism ushers me into his Auckland Park office with a swing of his trunk-like arm. Deon du Du Plessis is seated at his throne, a red-stringed Daily Sun badge slung around his thick neck, a Conan the Barbarian figurine assembled among evil dwarfs and scantily-clad maidens on the desk to the right of his fist.

“Look at this!” he booms, jamming his index finger into the heart of the page one story which recounts the tale of a 33-year-old steel worker in KwaZulu-Natal who shot his boss, stole the man’s bakkie, went on a joy ride, then killed himself after police pulled him over. “This is everyman,” says Du Plessis, publisher and part owner of the Daily Sun. “Every single worker has a boss and every single one of them has thought about doing things like that.”

Du Plessis rifles through the day’s paper with great relish, poking at the headlines and reading his favourites aloud. Cat is mum to a rat! There’s a woman on Mars! Saved from smelly hell!

“We publish rock ’n’ roll stories,” declares the 56-year old newspaperman. But this is no tame Guns N’ Roses show. This is vintage Ozzy Osbourne. The Daily Sun is biting the heads off bats to the roaring applause of the man in the blue overalls every single day – and their appetite is seemingly insatiable. They want the Sun and they want it now.

Since the tabloid launched in July 2002, it has mushroomed into publishing phenomenon, a 512 000 circulation daily that’s stomping on every paper in its path including The Star with its paltry 168 000 and the Sowetan’s 140 000. This makes the Daily Sun not just the largest circulation daily in South Africa, but one of the largest on African continent with a readership that swells to 4.3 million – a pass on readership rate of eight – with reports of people reselling their prized R1.60 paper after they’ve had a read, quite possibly making it the only used newspaper market in the world.

It’s the combination of those stellar readership figures, along with an other-worldly mix of uniquely African tabloid stories – gruesome muthi murders and regular witchcraft coverage along with a solid mix of Home Affairs horrors and some township feel-good pieces – that has brought reporters from The Wall Street Journal to the BBC into deep dark Africa to unearth the phenomenon of the People’s Paper that is sweeping a nation.

And just think, it was only three years ago that Professor Guy Berger, head of Rhodes University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies, told a packed crowd at the Mondi Shanduka Newspaper Awards that tabloids “look like newspapers, they feel like newspapers, they even leave ink on your fingertips. But,” he scolded, “they’re not really newspapers.”

Today it’s not tough to find an academic who is working on a discussion paper on the county’s tabloid cultural phenomenon or conducting research on its contribution to the public sphere. The Daily Sun and its ilk have become so difficult to ignore, in fact, that the Mondi awards will, for the first time this year, include a “popular journalism” category – a separate award geared specifically for them.

Not that Du Plessis cares.

“Oh, so they’ve created a special category now,” he says. “Well my heart doesn’t brim over with love for them. Why should we enter? Why set myself up to be fucked over?”

Maybe the Daily Sun will be giving this round a miss.

Tuesday 29 January 2008

SPEAK UP

Let the whites leave!

The reported exodus by white people because of the current electricity crisis would be welcomed by all real South Africans.

Good riddance to these people, who have always had one foot in this country and one in another, because we, the patriotic citizens of the country, will know where we stand and who is with us.

An ad hangs on the wall of advertising sales manager Elzanne Strydom’s office, its letters cut from newsprint, taking the effect of a ransom note: “We’ve got the workers,” it reads. “Hand over the brands.”

That much is clear. The Daily Sun has smacked the South African advertising market at its core. Or, as Du Plessis and Strydom like to illustrate, right in the centre of the rugby ball – that hefty bulk of LSM 5 and 6 readers that constitutes the middle market. They are the men and women who crowd into the reception area, or phone the paper each day to tell their stories. They flood it with letters to the editor – the person who sends in the best letter of the day wins R100 – and rail on about the ANC, JZ, Eskom, Mbeki, potholes, the perils of youth and, occasionally, about unpatriotic whites who are fleeing the country, good riddance.

At a solid seven months pregnant with no visible sign of fatigue, Strydom is a sales manager to reckon with. A sales job on a daily is not for sissies, and to head up the sales department for the county’s raunchiest and randiest tabloid, one has to have balls of steel. Strydom was just the girl for the job. An Afrikaner from the Free State, she was 25 when she joined the paper for its launch. That was back when just about everyone thumbed their noses at this particular market – along with the idea that those emerging from poverty might need a cell phone or a bank account or, let’s face it, toilet paper. Now it’s a whole new sales game.

“There’s finally a realisation that this county isn’t white and living in Greenside,” says Strydom, who has been with Naspers, the company that co-owns the paper along with Du Plessis, for 12 years. “They are black and living in Soweto. People are starting to understand that this is where it’s at.”

Strydom oversees a department that rakes in R250-million in annual advertising revenue with no sign of letting up. This year’s goal: R300-million. She operates a tight team, a lean department of just 65 people, which helps keep costs down while still managing to pull in ad at rates only slightly higher than other national dailies. Business is so good, Strydom says, her team is able to scrutinise potential advertisers to see who gets into the paper and who not. This is, after all, still considered a niche market, albeit the largest one in the country.

In the ad spaces of the Daily Sun are micro lenders, supermarkets – Shoprite, not Spar – adverts from the Post Office, from UNISA, the major cell phone companies – pay-as-you-go, not contracts – along with products to boost your sex life and soft porn, or bible verses if you prefer, direct to your cell phone.

Strydom’s job is done here. She’s seen the paper go from zero to 512 000 and counting. And now it’s time to go. She swears it’s entirely unpolitical, and that she is just country hopping like the rest of the global citizenship because, well, she can. By the time you read this, Strydom, her IT manager husband and their six-year old boy will be settled in their new lives in New Zealand – preparing to have a brand new baby on its sheep-infested shores. Good riddance, indeed.

Wednesday 30 January 2008

LIFE in the DARK

My guesthouse business is going down the drain!

EVERY time there is a power cut, Suzy Malaza sees money going down the drain.

 She runs the successful Rose & Crown guest lodge in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga.

 Suzy said since power outages began due to load-shedding, she has had to make other plans to keep her business going.

We are sitting in the sticky summer heat on the not-so-dusty streets of Rockville, Soweto, right outside the Kay Vee Funeral Home, waiting for a story. I’m here with Daily Sun driver Sam Nkosi, freelance writer Mzi Gumede and freelance photographer Andrew Mthimkhuli to cover a piece for Life in the Dark, a series on how the power cuts are affecting the readers of Mamgobhozi – which, roughly translated, depending on who you ask, is the spy, the gossip, the one who tells all, who hides nothing, who tells stories as they are. The name originated from a character on an SABC drama called Hlala Kwabafileyo, or Stay with the Dead. Mgobhozi was the surname of the town gossip. It’s now the affectionate nickname by which the Daily Sun has become known to its readers.

Du Plessis did not want me to go to Soweto. “White people fuck up the story,” he grumbled after me when I greeted him in his office just before heading out. “You can’t go into the townships. Shit.”

But here we sit. Because, Du Plessis, despite his gruff manner, his a habit of shouting like a general across the office for reporters and editors, his locker-room jibes, is an old-school hack with journalism coursing through his veins. He’s a former war correspondent who has been an editor on everything from the Pretoria News to the Sowetan and was managing director at the Independent Group, joining Naspers in 2002 to launch the Sun, and later the ill-fated daily Nova, in 2005. Du Plessis wasn’t about to stop a reporter from doing his duty, even if she was a broad. Besides, we weren’t on the hunt for tokoloshes. It was people we were after. Real flesh and blood.

For two hours, old and young stream into the funeral offices to choose coffins for deceased loved ones, or to pay their funeral insurance in preparation for the day they will meet their maker, an increasingly younger age these days as AIDS asphyxiates the community; a subject, by the way, that the paper tends to steer clear of. It turns out that this is a topic that people prefer not to peruse in their paper; and this paper is about the reader, remember? It’s not about feeding them what’s good for them, but rather giving them what they want so they will buy more newspapers and bring the Daily Sun close to their hearts, into their communities, the higher moral ground be damned.

We are waiting for the spokesman of the Soweto Funeral Undertakers Association to arrive. It seems that, although Gumede phoned ahead to let them know he was coming, the funeral proprietors decided they actually didn’t want to go on the record about the power cuts. Even though this is intended to be a positive piece about the hardships of business owners, they won’t talk, especially not to the Sun. It wasn’t long ago that the paper ran pieces about funeral homes ripping off customers and exposing their poor storage practices that allowed bodies to rot before burial.

“People are afraid of the Daily Sun,” says Gumede while we wait. “Even the police, they jump when we walk in. The Daily Sun is powerful. We really are a watchdog.”

Before freelancing for the Sun, Gumede was one of those brooding intellectuals. One of the paper’s editors used to come into the Melville pizzeria where he worked and Gumede would regularly gibe him for the paper’s cheap journalism and demeaning stories. That went on until the editor finally asked Gumede how he knew so much about journalism. It turned out that, ten years earlier, Gumede studied for his BA in communications at the University of Zululand. But he never paid his final fees, never got his degree in hand, never pursued the field he studied. The editor (who is no longer at the paper) invited him to the office to try out for a week. He’s been coming in every day since.

“Some of us claim to surpass all of this – you can call them the middle class or whatever,” says 35-year-old Gumede. “They treat the Daily Sun with contempt, but what they don’t know is that those things are really happening. The suffering of the people is really there and the Daily Sun tells how it is. And as much as you are living in poverty, you meet the poorest of the poor and you realise just how much you have.”

And what Gumede and Mthimkhuli (who was shooting weddings and funerals in Soweto until a photographer friend told him about the freelance opportunities at the Sun) have is not just a serious training ground, but the hopes of someday securing a prized spot on the lean staff made up of just five photographers and ten reporters. Freelancers are paid per story – R1.50 per word and R250 per photo. It’s not a lot of cash, especially when you understand that a story will run to an average of 250 words, 400 max. But they have a driver and an office, use of a computer, a phone to call their sources. So freelancers arrive at the office just like staff each morning, where they pick up assignments and get back in time to file stories. Which, in all likelihood, will be completely rewritten, no apologies, no exceptions.

“A reporter is not expected to be a great writer; they are supposed to get the facts right,” says Du Plessis. “I would not, in a million years, be able to get that story. I couldn’t go into that squatter camp. I do what they can’t and they do what I can’t. Everything is rewritten. All the writing is in the hands of a few good chaps.”

Du Plessis is about as proudly un-PC – and as brutally honest – as you can possibly get. There are no hushed conversations about black reporters getting rewritten by white sub-editors a la Llewellyn Kriel and the Sowetan; there is no hiding anything in this newsroom. The few good chaps that do the rewrites are the 14 sub-editors – majority white, with three of Indian descent – and they edit the five regional editions, taking in copy from not just from Gauteng but from satellite bureaus across the country.

While rewrites sound harsh, and surely they must be brutal, many times the writer is sitting next to his sub-editor. On at least four or five stories a day, that will be Du Plessis himself. Here, they learn word by word from the master. Because writing for a tabloid is no simple task. It’s not all about bold headlines and exclamation points. Just try to cram a story into 250 words, using only the simplest English, words with no more than two syllables. It’s certainly not something they teach in journalism school.

Or maybe they do. A few years ago, Desiray Viney, a media studies professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg was holding forth on the evils of tabloids, passing out the Daily Sun as an example of the atrocities of tabloid trash. Her students shot back.

“They told me, you critics must get a life, this tabloid is for the people,” she says. “I was humbled.”

After that Viney embarked on a three and a half year study of the Sun for her master’s degree, which included more than a hundred sample interviews, along with an in-depth focus group. She found out that what readers like is that the paper “tells it like it is”, it reflects their lives, all the crime, all the problems with sewage and local government. Sure, her interviewees got that they weren’t supposed to be reading it, that it was all guilty pleasure and most of them maintained a sort of cynical laughter around the supernatural stories. But the information about their communities was all there, in plain English, no preaching, no sterile writing or boring stories but, instead, rich, spectacular, exciting tales.

And while this style of writing might not be for everyone – it certainly is for everyman.

“I’ll throw away The Star after I read one story,” Nkosi tells me as he drives us back to the office two hours after we arrive in Soweto, the interview finally completed and photographs shot for Gumede’s funeral piece. “There are all of these big words, I have to get out the dictionary to read that thing. I like simple English. We get letters to the editor every day to thank us for the paper. Finally we have a voice.”

Thursday 31 January 2008

THIS IS HEAVEN!

By the man who says he’s been there!

A GUY who claims he’s been to Heaven and looked through its gates several times has described the scene to the People’s Paper!

He’s Martin Monareng (61) – a prophet and religious leader from Bobuanjwa, near Rustenburg, in the North West province.

He claims his first sight of Heaven was in 1963 when he was 16 years old.

“When does a person’s belief become a backward thing?” Themba Khumalo, the Daily Sun’s editor, says when I ask about the man who’s been to heaven and lived to tell about it. “If someone sees a vision of the Virgin Mary in Brazil, is that okay? Who are we to pass judgment on other people’s spiritual beliefs? If they feel like they have been done by an evil tokoloshe, who am I to say that they are backward?”

It’s standard tabloid ethos that the Soweto-born and bred Khumalo is going for here. As one editor at the Weekly World News – the American tabloid which provided a steady diet of alien abductions and Elvis sightings until it shut down last year – once said, “If someone calls me up and says their toaster is talking to them, I don’t refer them to professional help, I say, ‘Put the toaster on the phone’.”

Khumalo is part of the “stoep troop” – the brave few who sat on Du Plessis stoep to find out about his new tabloid back in 2002 and are still around to talk about it. He worked on magazines like Pace and Next and was a columnist for the City Press, but was freelancing when he saw the ad for an entertainment editor. He sent in his resume, and was on the stoep the following week. In September 2002 Khumalo moved to assistant editor, then on to deputy editor. In 2005 Du Plessis named him editor.

It’s not hard to see why. Khumalo embraces the whole philosophy of the paper, right down to its off-the-charts politically incorrect culture: screw the academics, suburbanites, intellectuals and prissy journalists.

“It’s a question of my dick is bigger than yours, isn’t it?” he says. “They hate us because we’ve got the big dick. The problem with these so-called academics is that they look at the front page. There are 48 pages in this paper.”

And the man has a point. Because once you get past the murders, the vigilantism, the crime, the witchcraft and the tokoloshes, the Sun does do its good deeds. There’s the Africa page, with a map of the continent and the world, which pulls out brief wire stories on different countries in the news. Mr Fixit is a handyman the Sun sends out free, to fix leaks in your roof, fractures in your plumbing. Next to the horoscope is a feature called Speaking English. This month’s theme: idioms. Examples: saving grace. “You would use it like this. The man’s saving grace was his ability to listen as in other ways he was very arrogant.”

Picture editor Sello Motsepe drops off photos for tomorrow’s paper on Khumalo’s desk. The editor grabs the stack. It seems that, while a house was being robbed in the Pretoria suburbs, a neighbour got clear pictures of three men as they ran out of the house and hopped into their BMW.

“Let’s tell people of Sunland and get these evil doers!” he enthuses. “I hate thugs. I wish it was mid evil times and we could hang them. Within 48 these guys will be behind bars. That is the power of the Daily Sun. The izinyosi; the bees,” he tells me, opening his eyes wide, “they are everywhere.”

Later, at the afternoon editorial meeting, Khumalo pulls up a seat next to Du Plessis. The stories for tomorrow’s paper are reviewed: a train wreck on the West Rand, a woman treated badly by a metro cop, municipal workers on a rampage in Cape Town, reptiles have invaded a township home and a waste collector died in Bloemfontein – hung by his scrotum atop security spikes. A photo of the man’s bloody takkies dangling in mid-air is passed around.

“You’ve got to have balls to sub that story,” Khumalo offers.

“I don’t think we can lead with that,” says Du Plessis, wincing. “SPIKED TO DEATH! How’s that?”

The Gauteng edition will run the spiked man and his bloody photo inside, with the shots of the robbers on the cover. Friday’s headline: GET THEM!

Tuesday 12 February 2008

IS IT MURDER?

Cops start probe after Daily Sun questions death of farmworker!

MOSEBI Ramafekeng (24) – a farmworker – died a mysterious death. Daily Sun started to ask questions…

AND NOW COPS HAVE OPENED A MURDER INQUIRY!

The dead man’s family was first told their loved one had been hit by a car … but then they started to believe Mosebi may have died from injuries he got after he was beaten by a white farmer!

It turns out Khumalo wasn’t underestimating his readership one bit. The weekend after the Friday paper with the alleged Pretoria robbers on the cover, they were inundated with calls about the fleeing suspects – including the parents of two of the men – and the three were arrested the next week. The people of Sunland, the very people who, just a few years ago, would never have worked with police are now calling them to turn in their own. “It’s cool,” says Du Plessis. “You mustn’t fuck with us.”

“Anybody who tells me that this paper is sensationalist needs to spend an evening at Moroka Police Station in Soweto and they will see that life in our neck of the words is sensationalist,” says Fergus Sampson, former GM of the Daily Sun, who was recently promoted to the CEO of emerging markets for Nasper’s Media 24 Group. “We don’t deliberately go out and find these stories. We are just reflecting what’s happening in our neighbourhoods.”

Sampson is a dapper, soft-spoken Pretoria-born University of Stellenbosch MBA graduate who wrote his thesis on tabloid publishing – which made up, more or less, the business plan for the Daily Sun. Sampson met Du Plessis at the Independent Group years before, but it wasn’t until the mid-’90s that two got together again and Du Plessis shared his vision. They teamed up, Sampson flogging the plan to every financial institution and venture capitalist in town, and being turned down flat, over and over again. Finally they went to Naspers. The Afrikaners bit.

Sampson and Du Plessis knew their target market and what they were after – they had done reams of research – but their biggest problem was distribution. After all, how do you get newspapers into a place where they have never been before?

The plan was to head “off the tar roads” and into the townships, to foster a grassroots distribution model that started with contacting people on the ground – guys who delivered for Nestle, who drove rubbish trucks around the townships, small businessmen – and offering them an opportunity. The Daily Sun would deliver a bundle of papers, teach the contacts how to sell, and help them develop sales skills and expand their “franchise”. It worked.

Now the Sun Army, as the sellers are known, constitutes more than 3 000 people, enough to justify Sun Streets, a monthly newsletter that keeps the sellers in contact with the general and his officers back in Auckland Park. The people have created their own massive distribution model to get their paper into the hands of readers across the country.

So, as newspaper circulations plummet around the world, the Daily Sun just keeps on rising. The only thing, says Sampson, between him and a million copies a day is a new printing press. “At which point does it make a difference to the advertiser?” he asks. “Fifty thousand? We’re just not sure.”

But, is this low cover price, median ad rate, lean staff, high printing volume publication model profitable?

“That’s a tricky question,” admits Sampson. “It is a profitable product and to date it has gone according to plan. We’ve expanded faster than we originally planned and invested in printing equipment in order to catch up with the expansion. This is a volume-based business. What we lack in cover price, we make up in sheer volume and that volume helps to brand our efforts. It’s good for Media 24 as a company, giving us the scale it didn’t have before, increasing its assets and distribution structure.”

Maybe the Daily Sun is turning profits on its own or, maybe it’s just good business for Media 24. “Would it be profitable if it were not in the Naspers stable? Probably not,” says one high-level newspaper executive who asked not to be named, echoing the ruminations of some in the industry. “But no one will ever get to the bottom of that one. The only people who know are the accountants at Media 24.”

What is sure is that the kinds of enviable circulation numbers still don’t impress tabloid critics like Professor Berger, who, as Empire goes to print will be mired in the preparation of the Mondi’s as the award’s convener, with its brand spanking new category just for tabloids. “There are other ways [aside from circulation numbers] to look at quality and contribution to society,” Berger says now, back, or at least soft peddling on his harsh comments at the 2005 ceremony which he now attributes to a great big misunderstanding. “A lot of Americans voted for Bush. That doesn’t make him the world’s best leader, does it?”

But the straight fact remains that the Daily Sun has rocked and rolled its way to the top of the circulation charts and Du Plessis is loving every minute of it.

Back in his office, he grabs Conan by his throne. The Barbarian, he tells me, would say the best in life is to “crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women.”

The people have spoken.

March 2008, Empire

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