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2010 FIFA World Cup Interview

World cup: The Mercury takes on Babel

In Durban, The Mercury's editor Angela Quintal grabbed the 2010 FIFA World Cup as an opportunity for some creative thinking and innovation at her paper. Quintal decided to use the event to show the market (and her readers) that "as a newspaper The Mercury was not the conservative business read of old and could lead the way in terms of a fresh and different approach."

She did this quite brilliantly through a series of 'twinning' projects in conjunction with newspapers from spanning from Lagos to Seoul. Essentially, Quintal forced her newspaper to embrace the globalised nature of news and media, and then took it one step further, integrating it into the print experience. As a regional newspaper, what was your editorial strategy in terms of positioning your world cup coverage?

Teaser campaign.
Teaser campaign.

Angela Quintal: We had seven games played here and the likes of Greece, Nigeria, and Cameroon etc staying in and around our city. Focusing on the teams playing and staying in Durban was an obvious choice for us. We embraced a global mindset, focusing on these countries every Monday during the 100 days to kick-off, including special mastheads and feature pages. But, we also brought it home for readers - the games, players, stadium, traffic plans, fan parks, the beachfront, where to eat, what to do.

In recognition of non-soccer lovers, we featured our "a whole lotta balls" columnists who provided some respite with 'alternative' entertainment advice and comment, from local Durbanites and theatre personalities.

We were conscious of the fact that our readers wanted a holistic package, so we did not skimp when it came to other content. We wanted to ensure that soccer and non-soccer fans alike would be able to read The Mercury during this period and feel they had been catered for and that soccer wasn't the only game in town.

Biz: The Mercury really seems to have thought outside the box with its Portuguese language wrap-around. How did you decide on this strategy and how was it received by your readers?

Quintal: It was part of the overall twinning project which added an international flavour to The Mercury and showed fans and visitors that Durban was indeed the warmest place to be.

We carried the front page of one of the newspapers in each country on the days they played in Durban and incorporated their logos into our masthead. We also had special street bills in the language of the country concerned. Our readers and visitors to Durban would have seen/read in The Mercury the front page of the following: The Courier Mail of Brisbane, Berlin's Bild, Madrid's El Pais, Fribourg's La Liberte, Lagos's Complete Sports, Seoul's Yonhap News, Tokyo's Mainichi Shimbun, Amsterdam's De Telegraaf, and Bratislava's Jeden Den Plus.

For what was billed the dream game, I wanted to do something similar, but different, as I knew there would be thousands or Portuguese speakers from within South Africa, the continent, and of course Brazil and Portugal, etc, in town.

The clash of these Portuguese-speaking giants was a gift to Durban and we wanted to be part of it. With hindsight the match was a bore, but the wrap made up for it! More than anything, it demonstrated our global mindset and the kind of innovation we could execute.

I guess because of my Portuguese heritage, it was the obvious thing to do, even though to my shame I don't speak the language very well. The Portuguese ambassador liked the idea and he put me in touch with the local community in Durban, and in particular a retired businessman called John de Gouveia. John made an extraordinary effort to assist - including translating reams of copy from English to Portuguese and was also present for two days, helping us with the layout, etc.

Thanks too to colleagues at the Folha de S Paulo in Brazil and Publico in Lisbon who were keen to assist. Their correspondents contributed the front page previews, while the rest of the copy was written in English by our reporters and then translated into Portuguese. What was probably one of the most enjoyable and chaotic days was the Thursday ahead of the big match, when we had scores of Brazilian and Portuguese journalists who had heard about the project, arriving to do interviews, and then staying to help.

They also helped get the message out, and the coverage in both countries was phenomenal. TV, radio, online, you name it; suddenly The Mercury's wrap was making the news.

Feedback from readers - local and visitors - has been enthusiastic. We really did strike the right chord and I think people appreciated the effort we went to. We've received letters and calls from many of our readers and frankly it's been a great feeling to have done something that no one else has done elsewhere in the world during a world cup. The only negative comment I received was from a German living in Durban, who took exception to us twinning with a tabloid like Bild, and felt that we were lowering our standards.

World cup: The Mercury takes on Babel

Biz: You also played with your masthead designs. What was the strategy here and did it increase reader engagement? Is it something you will do more often in future?

Quintal: A few years ago I might have been burnt at the stake for "messing with the masthead". Truth is our identity hasn't been set in hot metal type for a few decades! We've got the flexibility and creative talent to create a topical identity, why stifle it? I like to think our readers are visually literate enough to locate their The Mercury in-store. The special mastheads and country focus in the 100-days to kick-off received the thumbs-up from readers, advertisers and colleagues in the industry.

I'm not about to try it again anytime soon, despite readers suggesting we do so every time there's a major tournament. Although dare I say it, perhaps the Olympics when Durban hosts it?

Biz: Did you also view your world cup coverage as a means to attract new readers (and if so, did it succeed)?

Quintal: I saw it more as an opportunity to show Durban, SA and the world that as a newspaper The Mercury was not the conservative business read of old and could lead the way in terms of a fresh and different approach. In the build-up and during the tournament itself, we've effectively demonstrated our flexibility and ability to bring innovation to the market. We've created a stir out there which we would like to capitalise on, coupled with excellent content, of course. It's trite, I know, but content is king and we plan to keep it that way.

World cup: The Mercury takes on Babel

Biz: Just about all the editors I spoke with indicated a year-on-year circulation decline during the cup (one described it as having 30 public holidays back-to-back). Did The Mercury also suffer or did you buck that trend?

Quintal: Our colleagues in Germany had alerted us to how their newspaper sales declined during the world cup month in 2006, so we were well aware of the challenges.

However, we tried to cushion the negative impact by trying to be innovative (eg twinning with foreign newspapers), and hopefully attract the attention of in-town tourists. For example, we enjoyed significant sales at hotels as a result.

The Mercury's circulation manager, Lorne Maclaine, notes that sales during the world cup period did contract - by roughly 5% - but if measured against the reputed losses of other newspapers across the country, The Mercury escaped the carnage relatively unscathed.

Biz: For newspaper readers photography often tells the story very effectively. Do you think that the cup offered your newspaper an opportunity to engage with visual journalism in a more substantial way?

Quintal: Definitely, no doubt about it. From our mastheads, to our front page and back page, to the graphics, etc, it was important to make a visual impression. Excellent pics and using these well were key. In truth, though, I would have liked to have used graphics and photos far better than we did. We were constrained by our pagination, which many in the newsroom will tell you remained a major source of irritation.

World cup: The Mercury takes on Babel

Biz: Do you think South African newspapers were generally on target with their world cup coverage? There has been some debate around whether reporting needed to stay patriotic and others who felt it wasn't critical enough of how legislation around FIFA's rights and privileges for example were covered.

Quintal: That's where diversity is good - among the media and within newsrooms.

Certainly as The Mercury, we knew the world cup was going to be a huge moment for us as a country, but that did not mean we were prepared to become the imbongis for FIFA and the LOC.

For months leading up to the world cup we were asking the tough questions, getting up the city's nose and FIFA's, writing about contracts, tenders, and problems on the beachfront, etc. Our news pages reflected this - the good, the bad and the ugly.

Frankly, I believe patriots should be critical and inquiring, and not mere lapdogs or propagandists.

When we heard about the theft of money from one of Durban's luxury hotels where the Greek team was staying and the attempt to "cover it up", we were the first to put it on the front page, even though there were those who felt we were feeding into the stereotype that SA was a crime hell-hole. When the park and ride proved a problem after the first match in Durban, we wrote about it and ensured that things improved the next time around and when it did, we were there to tell that story.

It's been an extra-ordinary time in the country and I believe we've embraced it, without killing our watchdog instinct. For example, we didn't hold back on the King Shaka Airport fiasco after the semi-final which drew criticism from a small minority of readers - those who clearly had not bought expensive tickets and failed to make it to the match as a result of the chaos! Yet, we were happy to publish their criticism. If we're going to throw the punches, we need to be able to take them, too.

It's subjective but I don't believe we would have served our readers any better with a detached demeanour, or by focusing mainly on the negatives. If, as newspapers, we 'reflect reality,' what's been happening at our stadiums, fan parks, bars, taverns, homes, offices, has been 'reality' for hundreds of thousands of South Africans' for the past four weeks. Why ignore it?

In fact, even before the 'gees' caught on, we were already pushing the support Bafana Bafana message on the mast head. Even the Mercury Man sported the national team's strip and, of course, by the time it was kick-off day, we launched our "Nail your colours to the mast" campaign, ensuring each subscriber or reader who bought the paper on 11 June, received a South African flag sticker. We included a special supplement of all the national anthems, and we were proudly South African 100%.

And when Bafana Bafana didn't make it, we supported the Black Stars of Africa -although sadly they were robbed in the end. We've also embraced the Brand SA fly the flag for the next 30 days campaign. Although we've continued with the theme we started in the run-up to the tournament and are using the SA flag-painted face we featured in our kick-off edition.

About Herman Manson: @marklives

The inaugural Vodacom Social Media Journalist of the Year in 2011, Herman Manson (@marklives) is a business journalist and media commentator who edits industry news site His writing has appeared in newspapers and magazines locally and abroad, including He also co-founded Brand magazine.
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