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.








Is advertising pressure eroding editorial independence?

ImageThe American journalist Abbott Joseph Liebling (1904 –1963) is known for his famous remark:  “The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role is to make money.”

Of course no media house, unless community or public, is not driven by crave for profit. But the media also have a fundamental role to play. It is the reason the media exists. To be the voice of the voiceless, to advance the cause of democracy, to promote human rights.

When America ratified the Bill of Rights in 1791, the crucial role of the media was captured in Amendment 1, which clearly stipulated that Congress would make no law prohibiting the freedom of speech and press. The basis of this was that the media served as a cornerstone in building democracy, especially by checking the powers that be.

Independent media, especially in Uganda, has had its fair share of run-ins with the government. Closures, like was with The Monitor, CBS radio, revocation of operating licences (NTV) and outright threats by government functionaries is not new.

But as the media watches over its back, wondering what the government and its operatives could be up to, is there a newer threat they are not paying attention to; the advertisers?

In most of the 1990s, Ugandan newspapers largely depended on revenue from circulation. It perhaps explains the great creativity we witnessed then as newspapers fought for the market share. However, with the liberalization policy of the NRM government taking root in the late 1990s, a host of private multi-national corporations came knocking.

From the Celtel of then, to Stanbic replacing UCB, hundreds of private players have entered the market. Whereas the government employs less than one million Ugandans, the private sector from banking, telecoms, media, hotels, transporting currently employ the bulk of working Ugandans. This naturally means the private sector players probably have greater control on Ugandans’ livelihoods and if so, the media should be placing them under stricter scrutiny than even probably the government—but is this happening?

From my own interactions with journalists and editors, I have gotten the impression that the cash factor is increasingly hampering discharge of their duties. Here is what a friend, who was assigned to the court beat of one of the major newspapers, told me about his experience.

“I came across a case in court where a Black employee of a big oil/soap manufacturing firm was suing his Asian supervisor of abuse. The employee had accused the supervisor of treating them like dogs. He would beat them, spit at them, and do all manner of strange things. Being in court, this meant the information enjoyed qualified privilege and I could write the story. I did precisely that.”

He added: “I did not know I had opened a can of worms. The moment the story was published (as a brief), the company called our managing director. They accused me of all manner of things, including outrageous claims that the cleaner (plaintiff) had paid me. Of course I made my defence but they then pulled the masterstroke. The case was coming up for hearing but if we published the details of the hearing, then we could be sure their advertising, which ran in the millions, would be suspended.”

The above experience perhaps illustrates just a tip of what many reporters, whose work leads them in the path of big advertisers, go through. The burden is even heavier on editors. Every week, they are informed of what the big revenue stream of their media is. They are told who will be paying big advertising money that week. This information is a polite way of saying: “Let this big spender not be written about negatively.”

Editors today are even assigned commercial targets. It is not uncommon to see an editor besides being asked to sell a certain number of copies, to also initiate “money-making” projects for the media house. So, beyond being bogged down with the pressure of delivering good stories, editors must think about special projects/supplements/activations that will yield that extra revenue for the paper.

In her paper, “Editorial Independence; an outdated concept?” Australian journalist Michelle Grattan observes that the problem is not in demanding profit but “the profits being demanded are huge”. Uganda’s top media houses; Vision Group and Monitor Publications Limited, have in the past decade been raking in increased revenues every year. The pressure to better last year’s performance means editors and journalists working extra time to ensure higher sales, more copies.

This has meant media getting into bed with those it should be checking. Big advertisers demand prime space in newspapers, they fault the media when critical stories are run, they compromise journalists and do everything within the book to ensure only positive coverage happens.

An editor I spoke to sums it this way: “There were times when we feared the government. Today, it is riskier to criticize a private advertiser than the government. You can insult the President but will have trouble criticizing a CEO of a top company. We have been taken hostage.”

Even the government seems to have realized that money is mightier than molestation. Government agencies when unimpressed by media coverage also cite the financial implications of rubbing them the wrong way. When Uganda’s Parliament hosted the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2012, a certain media house ran a couple of stories critical of the procurement processes ahead of the conference.

Parliament had been running weekly adverts in this media house and when the stories cropped up, the advertising was halted. No reasons were offered although the general thinking is that parliament was unhappy with the criticism.

Journalists and editors find themselves in the tricky position of balancing the commercial and editorial objectives of their media houses. Is this possible or must one be sacrificed for another? This is a matter I will return to in a short while.