Tabloids are the future of print media; myth or fact?

tabloidsWriting in the Masscom@20 journal, published by Makerere University’s Department of Journalism and Communication to mark its 20th anniversary in 2009, Mr Arinaitwe Rugyendo, a founder of The Red Pepper, makes an impassioned case for tabloids and tabloidization.

Titled “The future lies in tabloidization”, Mr Rugyendo’s paper argues that because tabloids appeal to younger readers, promote citizen journalism and “critically address the needs of ordinary people”, they outrightly represent the future of journalism.

But in the same journal, respected journalist and media scholar Dr Peter Mwesige, writing under the title “Tabloids: The plague of journalism or its savior”, pokes holes into some of Mr Rugyendo’s assertions and also poses questions for his readers to ponder on.

Primarily, Dr Mwesige acknowledges that at times tabloids have acted as the trailblazers on big stories, which are only picked up by mainstream media thereafter. The Brig. Noble Mayombo death cause comes into mind here.

But Dr Mwesige does pose some questions: why do tabloids come up when they do? Are there specific industry dynamics or societal (re)configurations at play?

Here, I attempt some responses to Dr Mwesige’s questions but in doing so, also make an exploration of the media industry in Uganda—with a single question at the back of my mind: is tabloidization the way to go?

To answer the question when do tabloids come up when they do? Let’s look at a quick history of tabloids. The general agreement is that roots of tabloids can be traced to the era of “Yellow Journalism” and the rivalry between Joseph Pulitzer and William Hearst as they battled for the New York readership through their publications, New York World and New York Journal respectively.

To grow sales, the two men appealed to the “base” audiences, those ignored by the mainstream press. Marie Frankson, who wrote a paper titled “A Brief History of Yellow Journalism”, cited this “base” audience as “women, labour leaders, Democrats, immigrants and the poor”.

So, who are Rugyendo’s “ordinary people”? Are they the same as the “women, labour leaders, Democrats, immigrants and the poor”, whom Pulitzer and Hearst attracted?

The most recent Uganda All Media Product Survey (UAMPS) done by IPSOS/Synovate research firm (February 2013) shows that Red Pepper enjoys 27% of the market share of readers between 15-19 years (the youngest sampled demographic). The survey indicates that The New Vision commands 69% of the share; Bukedde has 53% while Daily Monitor controls 42%.

In the 20-24 age bracket, Red Pepper and Daily Monitor each enjoy 39% market share, while the New Vision has 67% market share control. These figures dispel the myth that tabloids have a greater control over younger readers, seeing that Red Pepper, actual trails in the market control of the young readers.

What about Rugyendo’s assertion that tabloids appeal to the “ordinary people”? A loose connection can be made between “ordinary” and “rural”. Again, the survey gives a different story. Red Pepper enjoys 31% of rural readership, compared to New Vision’s 62% and Daily Monitor’s 49%.

Dr Mwesige also wonders why despite the hype about tabloids, they still struggle in terms of sales. To respond to the question of appeal, one could be guided by circulation figures. Red Pepper does not subscribe to the Audit Bureau of Circulation but its circulation stands at about 12,000 to 15,000 copy sales. The New Vision averages 30,000 copies while Daily Monitor does 20,000 copies.

Whereas the New Vision and Daily Monitor are over 20 years old, Red Pepper is just above the decade mark. We therefore need to ask, if Red Pepper, as Rugyendo indicates, was attracting new readers “ignored” by mainstream media, did the entry of the tabloid actually attract new readers or it simply poached on existing readers?

Again, we shall turn to the numbers. When Red Pepper came into the market in the early 2000s, the Sunday Vision, which was best-selling then, did about 45,000 copies. Daily Monitor was averaging 30,000 copies. In the past decade, both papers have lost a fair share of circulation but neither has Red Pepper gained a lot. A common sense conclusion here is that rather than invite totally new readers to the stable, Red Pepper has largely poached from the mainstream media.

But it would be important to talk about the other major tabloid in the Ugandan industry—Bukedde newspaper. It seems to be the only paper defying the odds. When other papers have struggled circulation-wise, Bukedde has kept growing its reader base, with the recent ABC report placing it at an average of 31,000 copies up from less than 25,000 five years ago. If the growth trend stayed that way, Bukedde could become the highest circulating newspaper in the next five to 10 years.

So, why has Bukedde succeeded where Red Pepper seems to be struggling? First, we must note that Bukedde is the only player in the Luganda sector. It publishes in Luganda and has no major competitor. Secondly, Bukedde is fairly lower-priced than the other papers. A copy goes for Shs1,000, where the two English broadsheets charge Shs1,500 while Red Pepper goes for Shs2,000 a copy. But even then being a tabloid, the sensational and dramatic news presentation aids Bukedde a lot. Headlines like “Entisa!” or “Wuno!” naturally create curiosity, driving readership. In fact, we can perhaps conclude that only Bukedde, as a tabloid, has been able to attract new readers!

But that said, truth is we cannot wish away tabloidization (as opposed to tabloids) entirely. Rugyendo has a point when he talks of mainstream papers being “stale”. Of course this realization is not lost on the mainstream papers. Daily Monitor, for example, launched SQOOP magazine, largely to address matters of tabloidization. The New Vision was quick to follow with BLITZ. The Vision Group now has a whole tabloid, The Kampala Sun, whose circulation figures I don’t have but I guess is slowly connecting with the market. The trick, in my view might not lie in papers mutating into full-blown tabloids but it will be in the inevitable approach to having some tabloidised content in the mainstream media.

It would be unfair to conclude this discussion without talking about quality. Dr Mwesige asks, have tabloids led to the democratization of the media? Have they offered a wider platform for voices to be heard? Have they contributed to the body of public discourse?

Tabloids have indeed helped broach subjects which the mainstream media could have shied away from. But what is the nature of their sourcing? Rugyendo boasts “ordinary citizens calling and giving tips—and their stories appearing the following day”. This is not entirely true. Most news tips come from walk-in informers. Red Pepper does not have the physical national presence like Daily Monitor and New Vision do (each with about five bureaus spread across the country).

But also, how much professional scrutiny is subjected to tabloid stories—many times little or none. Of course the argument is that tabloids have some leeway to engage hyperbole. But one-sided stories, single sourced, making varying allegations with no right of reply to the accused, is not what one can call democratized media. It is professional dishonesty. Is that the media democracy we want—I leave that question to you.

By the way: What is a tabloid? The website, defines it as a newspaper that typically measures 11 X 17 inches and is five columns across, narrower than a broadsheet newspaper. Their stories tend to be shorter and tabloid readers are often working class residents of big cities. Tabloids also tend to be more irreverent and slangy in their writing style than their more serious broadsheet brothers. And while a broadsheet might spend dozens of column inches on “serious” news – a tabloid is more likely to zero in on a heinous sensational crime story or celebrity gossip. They focus exclusively on splashy, lurid stories about celebrities.








11 thoughts on “Tabloids are the future of print media; myth or fact?

  1. BuriteSaidSo says:

    Reblogged this on Burite said so. and commented:
    Some insight on Uganda’s media, here.

  2. Bob says:

    A very engaging, mature analysis by a man not even initially trained as a journalist. Great piece, Don.

  3. I like your analysis a lot Don.thanks. However, as i always pray, we need to analyse such with a clear distinction between Media and Journalism. There is a tendency across the globe to use media and journalism interchangeably.

    Media are the channels of mass communication. Journalism on the other hand is the practice or craft of generating (following a set of principles that ensure public interest is served) and conveying news, descriptive material and comments on issues or events through a wide spectrum of media. Actually to say Red Pepper, Bukedde or the Kampala Sun are journalistic media is not appropriate.They sure are media, and carry content, but is their content journalistic? As you note the practice of tabloid media is rarely if at all journalistic. So tabloids can NOT hold the future of journalism…probably they can for print media profitability.

    • WANYAMA says:

      Thanks Gerald for that technical distinction. But as you know, the tabloids still insist they are doing journalism! That is why in my conclusion, I ask if indeed they are doing journalism: when their stories are not double-checked, when they carry one-sided allegations, when people have no right of reply, when issues are blown out of proportion, I mean when basic journalism principles are abused, can we still call that journalism?

  4. Silas Anguzu says:

    “a tabloid is more likely to zero in on a heinous sensational crime story or celebrity gossip. They focus exclusively on splashy, lurid stories about celebrities.” Myth…tabloids are for degenerate societies.

  5. Don,
    Firstly, i think it is wrong to equate Tabloidsation in Uganda with Red Pepper. I think this is not right. You need to broaden your case study to make a helpful analysis next time. That said, let me state the following.
    1. My analysis at the time had only Red Pepper and Bukedde as the only tabloids existing. My argument then was that Tabloidisation is going to be a critical dynamic for the future of print and/or journalism in Uganda and for them to survive. I warned and predicted that a process of Tabloidisation of the Ugandan media was steadily underway. What has happened three or four years later? The New Vision’s entire weekend editions, design, a new sister weekly, a four Televisions stations and five radios are all tabs. The Monitor has Enyanda, Ddembe FM, SQOOP and is planning an English Tab. Why this process if they are not trying to adress the question of numbers? And what is journalism without numbers? Those who dont focus on numbers, choose to go stay in the lecture theatres. Why? because when you talk numbers in journalism, a professor will not listen to you because the two do not mix. Journalism is for public service.
    2. You show the latest UAMPS/IPSOS Synovate survey. The one for 2010 placed Red Pepper in second position across the categories you just mentioned. What explains the current situation? Unlike NEw Vision and Daily Monitor, Red Pepper is not subscribed. Therefore, before the three titles are taken off the press, NV and DM have subscriptions in public offices and schools guaranteed in the upwards of nearly 5000 copies. This is forced circulation not very much captured by researchers. They look at the tail end. Red Pepper doesnt enjoy this at all. The other reason is a prohibitive price. 2000 is way too high and someone has to decide between Lunch and Red Pepper. Then obviously, Red Pepper is the youngest of them- less than 12 years old but performing impressively better than when the other tow were at the same age

    3. Did Red Pepper poach on the existing readership? yes and no. Yes because all print enjoy same readership. That explains why the dynamics do not change greatly, meaning the future is going to be in the young generation. There are readers who are permanently and ideologically DM and NV and finally RP. And NO, because if there wasnt any new readership in the market, mainstream media would not be tabloidising. The New Vision-conducted research in 2004 has Robert Kabushenga acknowledging that Red Pepper had by then brought in a new readership because their circulation was never affected. I actually think Daily Monitor’s circulation was affected by The Independent and The Observer who carry basically same content and style.

    4. You say, UAMPS says tabloids are not enjoying a following amongst the young. What do the young population then read about NV and DM to whet their high percentage following? Scoop, Blitz etc. What is this content? Not certainly mainstream. They could be preferring it to Red Pepper because Red Pepper has not been innovating for the last six years.

    5. You accuse me of talking about what i call ‘Ordinary people.’ But you truly agree with me when you mention Bukedde as a successful tabloid. The issue will be what it is that they are addressing and the rest of us aren’t? The ordinary reader

    6. I think the debate about tabloids vs mainstream is not about to end. It is an eclectic debate. What ishappening to mainstream media in Uganda is an attempt to publish tabloid content without shading off their mainstream character. I think they are ‘tabloidising’ the Mainstream while others like the main architect Red Pepper are attempting to ‘mainstream’ tabloidisation. This latest silent battle between the three giants will have some useful answers for my friend Gerald Businge here above. You should look out for my updated thesis on this subject in the Uganda Media Centre Magazine published to mark 50 years of Ugandan Independence. The first one i did on this same subject appeared in the Rhodes Journalism Review of 2006.

  6. WANYAMA says:

    Thanks for the submission Ndugu Rugyendo, I guess we shall interface some more on this subject, which as you rightly point out, is not about to end

  7. Silas Anguzu says:

    Do you give the public what they want to hear or need to hear? Well, if you want their money, give them what they want. So can the media be objective when they must satisfy their readers whims? No. As far as i am concerned , journalism at that point would have degenerated to the level of a local soap opera. And that is why organisations like the BBC world Service, in the interest of objectivity, are public funded in order to remain impartial.

  8. Thanks Rugyendo for the additional information and thoughtful analysis on this interesting tablodisation trend. I especially like your conclusion on the current trend of “tablodising the mainstream’ as well as the other of “mainstreaming the tabloid”. And as you say numbers rule at the end of day, so every media outlet will look for the best ways to reach/appeal to and engage more people. I however know that numbers do not mean journalism. This is a simple matter really. Journalism principles are clearly known and its the practitioners or media owners to see whether they uphold, promote or negate them. As you are much aware, in the pursuit of bigger numbers, and these days as we attempt to deliver news and information immediately and across platforms, some tenets of journalism are ignored.

    Yours is a good debate about tablodisation being the future of media or more specifically printed media, and not journalism. But i think its only fair that we agree and own up to what we are producing…I have no problem with media channels that produce non journalistic content, Not everything produced in the media is or should be journalistic…most of the relevant information that people need and consume daily require a channel and not journalistic production/presentation….What i do not support in this ‘disease’ of trying to claim every published or shared thing as journalism (u even hear of citizen journalists…come on). Beyond the mainstream media debate, I’m an ardent promoter of new media tools and platforms and as such support free generation, production and sharing of news and information by anyone in any media possible. While there are many good aspects of increasing public space and bringing forth more voices in such practice, we shouldnt be under the illusion that because many people are able to post what they hear, see or feel in facebook, twitter on their blogs, journalism has therefore improved. Numbers are important but we need to analyse them in context of either journalism or media.

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