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.