Independent Newspapers' Isolezwe - one of the publishing phenomena of the South African newspaper industry - turned 10 years old last month, and its daily edition is still putting on sales while its more recent Saturday and Sunday editions are also growing.
Editor Mazwi Xaba tells Bizcommunity.com how Isolezwe's readers have moved up socially and economically with the paper, why its rootsy content is unassailable from English-language competitors and about the challenges of working with isiZulu as a newspaper language.
In the last ABC figures [for the fourth quarter of 2011], you guys were at 103 467 [from 100 786 the year before] for the daily paper so you're still growing circulation. Do you think you can keep that up or is the paper at the point of maturing?
Mazwi Xaba: Growth doesn't seem to be stopping and, when you look at the figures, there are a potential 10-million readers out there. The big challenge for any newspaper is to get your distribution network right and your pricing right. But I can't think of a [reporting] quarter where we haven't grown and, when the audited figures [for the first quarter of 2012] come out soon, we hope we will show some more growth.
Is the Saturday edition [launched in August last year and for which ABC figures are not yet available] picking up new readers or are these readers who are buying the daily paper and the Sunday edition [80 050 in the last quarter of 2011, compared with 74 916 the year before]?
Xaba: There are a number of stalwarts who buy every day of the week and you'll find people who buy more of the daily or on the weekend. I'm guessing here as we don't have the research but in previous research it showed that there are people who buy both the daily and the Sunday. It makes sense that there is some overlap.
Mazwi Xaba. Image by AdVantage
As you guys have grown, competitors such as
Ilanga [an isiZulu newspaper owned by the Inkatha Freedom Party's investment arm] have lifted their games. The Daily Sun [owned by Media24] is making a bigger push into KZN this year with a beefed-up Durban bureau and more KZN news. Xaba: Ja, it's almost like a gold rush. You know, previously people disregarded this market and it wasn't easy for Independent Newspapers to go after it. People weren't sure if it was going to be successful. But we took a chance and we came at the right time and it's history now: that we've just grown and grown.
But it does seem we've had a positive influence on others. We've inspired the Sunday Times isiZulu edition and Ilanga's redesign into a tabloid and they're re-energising their efforts. And the Daily Sun is also busy here in KZN trying to up their game.
It doesn't look like the isiZulu Sunday Times (launched in November 2010) has hurt your sales?
Xaba: No, it hasn't and the other thing to mention is we've also not seriously hurt Ilanga's market share. In fact, we've grown our own, new readership.
Look, Ilanga would be doing better if we were not around but we haven't stolen their readership. The Sunday Times hasn't had any effect at all. It doesn't seem to have been a properly worked-out project. The Sun has been making inroads in KZN and is doing well in other regions. It is a powerful brand but, when it comes to isiZulu, that's a different matter: it comes down to us and Ilanga.
So what is the quintessential reader of
Isolezwe? Who do you guys think of when you're writing stories? Is it LSM 6? Xaba: Well, we've got some LSM 6 readers and go up to LSM 10 but then it goes as low as LSM 2 and 3, I'm sure. What happened in the decade of our existence is that we started very low and the readers have grown with us and stayed with us.
A lot has happened in South Africa in the past 10 years. When we started the paper, people were starting to move up in life and in work so I would say that it's LSM 5 if you are looking for an average reader. But what we think of as the average reader is the person who probably works - but not full time.
We do better in the urban areas than the outer-lying areas in comparison to Ilanga, which does very well in the rural areas.
Daily Sun goes for the man in the blue overalls. Is it the same for Isolezwe? Xaba: Our guy is not so much in your blue overalls as half of them. The Sun and Isolezwe target roughly the same people but the Sun can accommodate white readers - someone like a white security guard.
It's very hard to picture but when we launched we had this image of a township dude in his late 20s. He's probably tried playing soccer but he didn't make it and he wants to be someone. He's probably studying or working part-time in some kind of employment. He's got something going.
Being a first-language English speaker in Cape Town, I'm far out of your footprint. I'm guessing your content mix is soccer, celebrity, the [isiZulu] royal family?
Xaba: Lots of soccer. We cover the royal family but we're not fixated on it. Isolezwe and Ilanga are the only print avenues that can tackle isiZulu cultural matters. People know to come to us for this. You can talk about the reed dance in English papers but some stuff gets lost in the translation. People like to talk about this stuff in their own language.
OK, so you guys offer credibility on cultural, rootsy issues?
Xaba: Ja, and that's something that the Daily Sun, for example, can't take away. It's a big plus for Isolezwe and Ilanga.
So you're 10 years old. Are there any big plans for the next 10?
Xaba: You know, we've demonstrated over the years that we know what people want and we need to continue giving it to them. Obviously, we are due for a redesign but there are no major changes planned other than working with isiZulu as a language is very challenging and we've learned a lot over the past 10 years. We need to keep improving [as a newspaper] and basically keep giving people want they want.
What have you learned about working with isiZulu in a newspaper environment?
Xaba: It's a life project. We are doing our bit and others will take up where we leave off... It's about promoting the use of the language, improving the language and contributing to its development as a living language.
You know, we come across challenges every day. We're having to coin new terms for some of the phrases that in English you take for granted. We try and keep the language as pure as possible but also as modern as possible. The temptation is to bastardise the language and mix it with others and we're trying to avoid that.
On the other hand, you find pedantic people who want to police the language, which is very difficult because a living language - as far as I'm concerned - needs to change and be useful to its users.
You've been at the paper from the very beginning so why do you think the isiZulu press exploded but has not done so in other big vernacular languages such as isiXhosa and Sesotho?
Xaba: isiZulu is the most widely spoken of our indigenous languages and Zulu people are very proud of their culture - like Afrikaans people.
They want to hold on to their language. They want to see it thriving and developing - and not just surviving. When they speak in isiZulu, they want people to speak it properly - especially children. If you were to count the number of books published in isiZulu compared to other languages such as isiXhosa, for example, you'd be shocked and, for example, Ilanga is over 100 years old.
I don't think that people speaking other indigenous languages aren't proud of them but the language-development projects are new.
Gill Moodie (@grubstreetSA) is a freelance journalist, media commentator and the publisher of Grubstreet (www.grubstreet.co.za). She worked in the print industry in South Africa for titles such as the Sunday Times and Business Day, and in the UK for Guinness Publishing, before striking out on her own. Email Gill at and follow her on Twitter at @grubstreetSA.
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