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In the latest instalment of her "Backstory" series, Gill Moodie writes exclusively for journalism.co.za:
THE ANC’s recent campaign for a City Press boycott may have delivered the paper the perfect gift.
Not only has evidence emerged to suggest the ANC’s calls two weeks ago for a boycott of City Press fell on deaf ears but it gave the paper at the centre of the Brett Murray furore a brand opportunity that others would have willingly paid millions to orchestrate. By forcing readers to choose between buying and not buying the paper, the ANC created a kind of D-Day for City Press in its repositioning that started in 2009 under editor Ferial Haffajee to go upmarket and take on the Sunday Times.
“A repositioning is a work in progress,” Minette Ferreira, the GM of City Press and Daily Sun, told Journalism.co.za, “but what has happened now is that a very clear line has been drawn in the sand about where this product is pitched and the type of debate and issues that it is willing to tackle.”
What City Press – which was one of the few SA papers to buck circulation decline in the most recent ABC audited sales figures – has now very clearly said is that it is a paper for the educated, thinking middle class rather than the ethnically focused title it once was.
The final sales figures for the “boycott edition” remained stable compared with the average sale during May so there was no decline, Ferreira said this week.
Further, no advertisers pulled out of the paper nor expressed concern about the controversy. There were isolated reports, however, of spaza owners putting up posters against City Press and of tellers in supermarkets trying to discourage people from buying the paper.
Most of the reports that came to Ferreira’s attention were of early sell-outs.
For Ferreira, the crucial factor is that Haffajee took the lead in defining the national news agenda and the moral agenda of the controversy that saw supporters of President Jacob Zuma march on the Goodman Gallery.
There was no pressure from above on herself, Ferreira said, nor did she ever interfere with Haffajee’s editorial decisions.
For Haffajee – and for editors across the country – the controversy that saw her take images of Murray’s work showing Zuma with his fly unzipped off the paper’s website last week in the “spirit of peacemaking” has thrown up important questions about when you should challenge the readers and when you should give them what they want. When do you lead and when do you follow?
Most editors these days put a lot of store in market research as a tool to listen to readers and City Press’s market research has been extensive and in-depth since it embarked on repositioning.
Haffajee, who edited the Mail & Guardian before taking over at City Press, said she had been “attentive to how our readers have been feeling” during the controversy.
Interestingly, there was no outrage from readers when the art work first appeared in the paper and on its website, said Haffajee, and only after the ANC responded did the majority of readers start saying they did not like the art work.
Yet Haffajee made the choice to keep the image up for about 10 days.
“I don’t think you must create comfortable little oases where people get their views confirmed, certainly not in a country like ours… I don’t think you can edit a newspaper like you would a magazine. Magazines are crafted to their markets. Our country is much too exciting and much too diverse for newspapers to do that.”
The market-research guru behind City Press is Jos Kuper, and independent researcher and a director of FutureFact. She founded the Daily Sun – City Press’s sister paper in the Media24 stable – with the legendary Deon du Plessis 10 years ago and her research for the paper has been ongoing. Since last year, Kuper has been working with Haffajee on understanding City Press’s reader and the market it is targeting.
“I always say a good editor’s got to feel the product in their tummies,” Kuper said. “Good research doesn’t make a great product. It’s the editor and his or her team that make a great product. Research can give guidance and then it is up to them to decide what elements they can take forward and what elements they can’t… It wasn’t the research genius that made the Daily Sun. It was the foundation for which the geniuses like Deon du Plessis and his team produced the magic.”
Listening to the market is absolutely key, says Kuper, so that editors find out what the market is reading and how it is behaving, what stories are space wasters and when stories wear out.
However, she is very clear that there is a point at which editorial integrity must come to the fore. “Even if your market, for example, endorses vigilante behaviour, you cannot endorse it. If your market wants the death penalty returned, you cannot endorse that if, editorially, you feel that it is your moral responsibility not to do that. As an editor, you do set the agenda – and you set the moral agenda. That is a line that, no matter what the market says, you don’t cross.”
This principal was at work in the Daily Sun’s very straight-forward coverage of the Zuma Spear saga. The paper gave the controversy a lot of coverage but it didn’t come out either way on the issue even though Reggy Moalusi, who was acting editor during the controversy, estimates that about 85% of the paper’s readers were against the painting – gauging by letters and comments on the paper’s very popular Facebook page.
Although Moalusi points out that the Daily Sun naturally supports the position of its sister newspaper, it is not a given that papers in the same stable take the same line on controversial matters. The Daily Sun could easily have harnessed the strength of the readers’ feeling on this by coming out against the controversial art work.
“There has been lots of opinion about the painting – in the Sunday papers and the dailies,” Moalusi said. “We are not an opinion paper. We are a paper that has people’s voices talking and, in this case, people’s voices came out through social networks and the letters page.”
Eric Ndiyane, who is both editor and news editor of the KwaZulu-Natal-based Ilanga, meanwhile, agreed with his readers that the painting was disrespectful to President Jacob Zuma.
It was not surprising that the readers of Ilanga – a twice-weekly isiZulu paper owned by the Inkatha Freedom Party’s investment arm – came out so strongly against “The Spear”, said Ndiyane, considering Zuma is from KwaZulu-Natal and that polygamy is practised widely in the province.
“To be honest, I share the sentiments of our readers,” said Ndiyane, who in his column last week said that there was nothing in the Bill of Rights to support the humiliation of a human being. “The letters that we got had nothing to do racism or racial tension. They were more to do with how as a country we’ve gone down when it comes value systems and respect for human dignity. These are the values that I was brought up with so it was not far away from my belief system. ”
But Sunday Times editor Ray Hartley, said: “The score for these things is calculated over a much longer time scale than what is happening now. What does the majority of the public really think about this? You need to take the temperature again in a few months because you can misread a very few loud comments as representing public opinion.”
Meanwhile, independent media planner Virginia Hollis does not believe that controversies such as these taint advertisers negatively. “If half of the normal readers choose not to buy the paper, that will have an effect,” she said. “When it’s bad news, it’s different. So, for example, if an aeroplane crashes, then you make sure you don’t place advertising for airlines in and around that period. Or if you advertised, for example, (in newspapers covering) Princess Diana’s funeral, that would be viewed as bad taste. But controversy, I think, increases circulation.”
In terms of the power relationship between government and the media, Haffajee’s concession on taking down the picture has met with mixed reactions from editors and the public.
Haffajee took it down “out of care and fear”, she wrote last week, so it does appear that the ruling party’s thuggish behaviour worked for them.
Was it self-censorship and will editors be nervous to push the ANC’s buttons in the future?
Ndiyane worries about the fact that the ANC moved so quickly to calls for advertising and sales boycotts when there were other less aggressive avenues – such as the Press Ombudsman – to use.
Hartley says there is a difference between censorship and editing and there are many things editors choose not to publish because they may be a family newspaper, for instance. Many editors think twice about publishing satirical images of Mohammed, he points out, because it is deeply offensive to a part of our society.
“I don’t think I will censor myself,” said Haffajee. “I think you make choices, like I have done now and I am coming under some heat for them but I can explain those choices.”
‘How to move things along’, City Press, June 2012
‘The Spear is down our of care and fear’, City Press, 28 May 2012
‘Zuma spear highlights lack of arts coverage’, Journalism.co.za, 28 May 2012
‘ANC vs City Press: what lies beneath’, Daily Maverick, 28 May 2012