Its tabloid time … welcome!, By DAVID MATENDE
Are Kenya newpaper publishers changing their game? Both The Standard and the Nation groups, the two top publishers, seem to have made up their mind that tabloid, or downmarket, is the way to go.
Stiff competition from the omnscient internet, the glamorous TV and the ubiquitious radio has forced the big boys of the industry back to the drawing board as they fight to remain relevent in the continually changing mass media sphere.
The two publishers have decided to sex up their act by veering into tabloid journalism, that genre of journalism they previously ridiculed as gutter, and wrote derisive opinions against earlier attempts at this class of journalism by mostly small-time publishers.
The Nation’s latest paper, Nairobi News is every inch (literaly and literary) tabloid – or gutter, if you want to be uncharitbale, as is the Standard’s Nairobian, which hit the streets much ealier. Like tabloids elsewhere, the Nairobi News and the Nairobian thrive on the sensational, focusing on scandals involing both the mighty and the lowly.
But unlike the British tabloids that sometimes act as the public police, exposing sleaze and other iniquities, Nairobi’s tabloids are happy to serve their readers a menu comprising of the trivial , the macabre and the plain silly.
The inane dramatics of controversial city Senator Gideon Mbuvi, aka Mike Sonko, and the sexual exploits of Kenya’s wayward preachers, are major attractions for our tabloid journalists.
This form of journalism has taken long to take root in Kenya . Others African countries embraced it long ago. South Africa, for example, has a thriving tabloid press that excite readers with tells about racist sharks that devour white swimmers, witchdoctors that snatch husbands and a magic plants that enlarge manhood.
They are a hit with black workers as they tell sex stories with a distinctive African flavour, describing situations that many identify with. Besides, they are cheap.
Like in Kenya, where the Nation and the Standard groups traditionally targeted the middle class, publishers in South Africa used to target the richer white minority with upmarket titles in English and Afrikaans, until they realised that there is big money to be made by going down market.
Today, the Daily Sun is the talk of the townships, selling close to a half a million copies every day, which is very good for any newspaper. It is followed closely by two weeklies – the Afrikaans Die Son and English Daily Voice
While South African tabloids target the black population whose buying power increased with the end of aparthied, the Kenyan tabloids target the emergent middle-class youth – the same cohort that is hooked to the internet.
Kenya’s neighbour, Uganda, has already established itself as East Africa’s home of of “red top” journalism .The raunchy Red Pepper holds the dubious distinction of the newspaper that celebrates sex in its most outragious form, never shying away from publishing pitures of nudes, a part from having the odd courage to display on page one those caught in the act.
The competition from tabloids is so stiiff that some serious tittles are being forced to lower thier standard to survive. South Africa’s second biggest media company, Johnnic Communications, has been forced to “sex up” the hitherto serious Sowetan newspaper in order to remain in business.
The Daily Nation, Sunday Nation as well as the Standard long ago realised this and decided to include “tabloitish” inserts in their serious editions.
Even in Britain, where they have been domiciled for ages, tabloid journalists have never been favourites of polite society. A survey showed them being lower in esteem than even politicians!
Three years ago, the British tabloids spoiled the party for themselves following the unforgivable sins committed by the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World.
The newspaper was found quilty of the very callous and perplexing act of intercepting the mobile telephone messages of a murder and terrorism victims.It was forced to close shop after a long and chequered journalistic journey.
For a tabloid that had established itself as a pain the neck of swindlers, shaggers, liars and cheats in government and corporates, the demise the the News of the World left the public much the poorer.
Much as it reported on the trivial and invaded private space, the News of the World, like the Sun and the Mirror had made a name for itself as an indefatigable campaigner for the interests of the working class people
Kenyan tabloids have so far remained in the kiss and tell mode, hardly doing any campaigning . Yet some of the world’s best journalism has been tabloid, from the days when John Pilger revealed the cold truth of Cambodia’s Killing Fields in the Daily Mirror. Award-winning writing in the tabloids is acknowledged every year.
While British tabloid readers are mostly the working class with less time to peruse lengthy articles – many work in manual jobs with very short breaks, or are at home looking after children, Nairobi’s tabloids target the urban youth.
Apparently, like the British working class, Nairobi youths want pithy information, entertainment and crassness to cheer up their day. They also apparently have such an insatiable appetitie for celebrity scandals as opposed to, say politics, business or farming.
To their credit, South African tabloids speak out on community topics like the slow delivery of decent housing, water and electricity – hot political potatoes in that country.Their persistent hammering on these topics is giving them some political clout.
Entertainment may be the key to tabloid appeal, with the editors giving the readers what they want (as opposed to what they need); but they also take up popular causes. Nairobi’s tabloids seem either incapbale or unwilling to pick on campigns, such as Stop the War campaign that made the Daily Mirror look good and caring.
Tabloid readers in Britiain are both ardent campaigners against injustice and generous donors, often sending envelopes containing an entire pension or their children’s Christmas money to people they believe need it more.
Tabloid campaigns include campaigns against war in places far away from Britain such as Darfur, against domestic violence, on elderly people in care, trade justice, and against public sector cuts.
If Kenyan tabloids picked cue, they would now be campaigning against possible job cuts in the civil service, the methods used in the war agains terror, among other issues.
The original tabloids were published by Alfred Harmsworth, who spruced up a couple of badly produced, poorly circulating newspapers. He not only improved them, but also sold them cheap.
The term “tabloid” was already in circulation, trademarked in 1880 by the drugs company Burroughs, Wellcome and Company for compressed drugs in smaller tablets. By the early 20th century, it had come to mean the new drug of the nation – the addictive short, sharp journalism.
By 1915, tabloids run by Northcliffe had become so powerful they ignited an outcry against Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith during the Shell Crisis of 1915 to bring down the Liberal government.
Kenyan taboids could be lacking in campaign journalism because most of the journalists are young as opposed to the gritty old school types that took journalism as a calling. At its best, tabloid journalism is an old skill, a trade in the old-fashioned sense.
Most hacks also possess a naturally deep disdain for authority, establishment and big business. Getting the story is everything – even if it means using unorthodox means (including phone tapping ,of course)
It’s style is a deeply visual medium. The work of the reporter is accentuated by a team of creative headline-writers, photographers, designers and sub-editors. But at a good tabloid’s heart is an ability to cut through complexity with a sharp eye and convert it into simple argument. It is also critically about fun and humour. It is not for the faint-hearted.
Media watchers are waiting to see which direction the Nairobian and the Nairobi News will take, that is if they don’t fizzle out like others before them.