Targeting South Africa's 'Guy in the Blue Overalls'

(Karin Brulliard - Twp)
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By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 16, 2008

JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 15 -- A man killed by a swarm of killer bees. Marijuana muffins for sale in the townships. A notorious car thief nabbed by cops. A dead snake and two bottles of medicinal plants called muthi, found by a woman at the threshold of her preschool.

"That's a good one. Probably Page 3, actually," publisher Deon du Plessis grunted on a recent morning to the editors of the Daily Sun tabloid, which the next day would cry: "EVIL MESSAGE OF THE MUTHI SNAKE!"

Du Plessis, a brash, hulking white Afrikaner, was presiding over another morning meeting at the largest newspaper in sub-Saharan Africa, pondering what would make its 5 million or so readers chatter most during their tea break at work.

It is a readership du Plessis knows well -- not because he is part of it, but because he has cornered it since founding the Daily Sun six years ago and becoming one of South Africa's most successful and controversial media figures.

The Daily Sun reader, he says, is "the guy in the blue overalls": a skilled black South African worker who is saving for a Toyota and owns a home in his township. He wants very much to know when police catch criminals, when evil spirits might be lurking and when mattresses are on sale.

That guy, as du Plessis saw it, was part of an untapped black working-class market that blossomed after the end of apartheid in 1994. Du Plessis, a former executive at a major newspaper chain, says he believed those people wanted to read news relevant to their everyday lives, not what he calls the "pompous and liberation-struggle-driven" coverage that dominated the staid English-language dailies at the time.

"We said all that didn't matter anymore," recalled du Plessis, 56, gravel-voiced and with fingers thick as bratwursts.

In a story well known here, du Plessis peddled his idea for two years until he got a bite from a publishing group that mostly produced Afrikaans-language newspapers. Soon the Daily Sun, which sells for about 18 cents, was dwarfing the competition. Its daily circulation now hovers around 500,000, about three times as high as its closest competition.

"Before the Daily Sun, the general consensus was that that market didn't have enough spending to attract advertising, and therefore it wasn't a viable media market," said Anton Harber, director of the journalism and media studies program at the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg. "It was a complete blindness in the media industry, which Deon brilliantly recognized."

The Daily Sun is filled with advertisements targeting a reader whose life is on the rise. There are pitches for home loans, discount furniture and cellphone plans for people with poor credit.

With features such as an "idiom of the day," the paper tries to educate its readers. And it works to hook them, publishing a daily man-on-the-street photo taken by the Daily Sun "Snaparazzi." If it's your picture, you win a cash prize.

But it is the stories, gathered by dozens of freelance reporters throughout much of the country, that draw the most attention.

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