Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe
On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
FRONEMAN, Johannes D.. Towards a sensational populist community press?. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2012, vol.52, n.2, pp. 221-235. ISSN 2224-7912.
This article examines recent changes made to the front-page of the 104 year old Potchefstroom Herald (the HeraldJ as these represented a significant break from the conservative typography and news agendas of the past. The Herald has seemingly shifted towards a tabloid style or sensational journalism (which includes strong typography and an emphasis on the dramatic and emotional). In order to contextualise the Herald's changes and ascertain whether the said more sensational style has become a general trend amongst South Africa's community newspapers, a number of leading community newspapers are also briefly examined. This is done against the backdrop of the success achieved by daily and Sunday tabloids, for example the Daily Sun and Son. The question is posed whether the once conservative community press is headed in the same direction. A qualitative analysis is made of the size and prominence of headings and photographs, the news agenda and other front-page style elements of the Herald and other community newspapers, such as the populist Vaal Weekly, Vaalweekblad and Western Sun; the semi-populist Polokwane Observer and Northern Review; the more traditional papers with some populist elements, such as the Lowvelder, Tygerburger, Eikestadnuus, Paarl Post and Worcester Standard; and the more traditional Sandton Chronicle and Roodepoort Record. Based on this analysis, it is concluded that the 2010 Herald was quite unique with regard to its tabloid-style, stacked headlines punting stories of crime, accidents and the bizarre. As the sensational populist style of the Herald's front-page was not continued on the inside pages, the newspaper had a dualistic character. The newspaper could, therefore, not be described as a true tabloid. However, it is argued that the Herald made a fundamental shift away from a more sober approach to community journalism. (Subsequently, the Herald has reverted back to a more eclectic approach, which utilises all the recent styles.) While the Herald has gradually shifted to a sensational populism, its circulation figures grew markedly - from just above 7 000 in 2007 to 9 000 in 2010. However, the editor denies that the editorial changes were due to managerial pressure. He also emphasises that the newspaper was sensitive to readers 'preferences. Although the study shows that a number of other community newspapers had become populist to some extent, most newspapers did not follow the Herald's combination of typography and populist news agenda in 2010. It was notable, though, that many of the leading community newspapers incorporated populist elements on their front-pages. It is argued that while commercial and other pressures are real, community newspapers should carefully distinguish between blatant sensationalism on the one hand and lively populism on the other. Should they ignore this distinction, they run the risk of losing their traditional readers. Furthermore, questions could be raised regarding the tabloidisation of the community press, as it could put the newspapers' trustworthiness at risk.
Keywords : Potchefstroom Herald; community newspapers; tabloidisation; sensational populism; qualitative analysis of front-pages; break with conservatism; trustworthiness.