By Darren Gilbert

The mention of the word ‘tabloid’ is likely to bring with it visions of newspapers printing stories purely to create sensation around a certain topic. There is also the opinion that this kind of journalism lacks both integrity and ethics. One only has to look at examples overseas to understand this argument. ‘Red top tabloids’ – the prototypical example of the format – such as The Sun and The Daily Mirror are constantly under the spotlight for the way they report, while News of the World recently closed its doors after going too far with its so-called ‘investigative methods’. This raises the question: is there really any value to tabloids?

You are bound to find a few commentators arguing against them, myself included. Minette Ferreira, however, isn’t one of them. In fact, Ferreira, the general manager of South Africa’s own red top tabloid and largest daily newspaper, The Daily Sun, points out that regardless of what people think of tabloids, they have an important function. “Tabloids play a central role in the lives of people. The Daily Sun, for example, is not just a paper. It’s a companion and a friend.”

Of course, there is more to tabloids than just that one aspect, continues Ferreira, who believes that the journalism found between the covers is one of the most difficult forms of writing. It’s a surprising observation considering that tabloids are seen to be based on sensationalism, but she can back it up. “Tabloids tell stories, but in a way that has to be clever, intelligent and engaging. Instead of your average newspaper that speaks to you, tabloids include their audience. They ensure that people take centre stage by going down to their level and engaging with them.”

I’d beg to differ with the suggestion of great journalism in tabloids, but Ferreira believes that those who criticise tabloids are usually the ones who have never actually read one. “Tabloids have a unique angle. It might be seen as sensationalist but that’s how tabloids work. The goal of a tabloid is to have its readers entertained and satisfied by the time they have finished reading it. If you aren’t satisfied, it hasn’t done its job.” And it’s not just about the front cover, she adds. “As I said earlier, we tell stories. Boredom spells death to any tabloid.”

However, that attempt to continually entertain your audience can lead to the problem where tabloids step over the fine line between fact and embellishment. It’s a point that Ferreira concedes, admitting that tabloids often walk a fine line between what is acceptable and what is not, but she doesn’t believe it happens often. “If you don’t like what we print and think it’s in bad taste then it just means that it was not written for you. If, on the other hand, our target market accepts it, then it’s forgivable.” Having said that, she points to an incident that happened specifically to The Daily Sun.

“We had published an image of a woman’s body, who had recently committed suicide with her baby. For some, that might be seen negatively but we received good reactions from our readers. Why? Because we were reporting on what was happening on the ground. We were focusing on the reality of everyday life.” It points to an interesting fact about tabloids that Ferreira states: “They act as the mouthpiece of the people, fighting for the rights of the ordinary person.” It might sound a little melodramatic but it’s a point that needs to be made.

As Ferreira points out, this also shows that tabloids are not just about sensationalism. “For us, every story highlights an issue. We tell of the politics on the street. It might not always be good news [and also not be perceived that way] but it gives people who previously didn’t have a voice a chance to speak out.” Ferreira again highlights an example: “We have had readers phoning us first to tell us about a crime that was committed before they even talk to the police. That action alone shows how important a role tabloids play. We have that type of a relationship with our audience where they feel comfortable to speak to us.”

The nature of tabloids will always feed the perception that they are nothing more than sensation and gossip without credible fact or ethical judgement. However, it’s a view that would do the genre a disservice. Ferreira certainly believes that there is value to this kind of publication, and while there may be people who disagree, this does not mean that their disapproval is shared by everyone else. Instead, as Ferreira says, it just means that tabloids aren’t for everybody.

What are your thoughts on tabloids and tabloid journalism? Do you enjoy reading tabloids? Let us know on our blog.