Welz, Noseweek Carry on Regardless
Noseweek editor Martin Welz's right hand and arm are heavily bandaged, with only a purple thumb evident. "A flaming chip pan," he explains. No, it wasn't an angry reader, he says, laughing.
Noseweek has annoyed a lot of people but, after 10 years of dogged exposÚs and iconoclasm, it has managed to establish sales of 15000 an issue, half of whom are subscribers. To put this into perspective, the latest ABC figures put Finance Week's average sales at 13924 but You at 231648. Impulse buyers pay R25 a copy for about 32 pages of Noseweek and subscribers pay about R19 a copy.
Noseweek is famed for its controversial covers and content. The cover of August 2001 had a picture of Finance Minister Trevor Manuel hugging National Treasury director-general Maria Ramos in a swimming pool with Ramos saying: "The rand's not getting you down, I notice."
Prof Guy Berger, head of the Rhodes University journalism department, says Noseweek is, as its title suggests, a provocative and "in your face", audacious publication. He likens it to The Drudge Report, the US source of political gossip that revealed the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but says Noseweek is more credible.
Welz has no objection to Noseweek being described as a muckraker. He says he was originally inspired by Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, and by The Week, a London newsletter founded in the 1930s by Irishman Claud Cockburn to reflect what people were really saying about current events, and the tone they were using. Welz was also influenced by the British and later American muckraking journalist Jessica Mitford.
Noseweek writes stories that do not normally reach the public and there is a randomness about its selection because, as a small publication, it cannot cover everything. But Welz says there are certain favourite targets, and a qualification for entry is being treated with reverence by other publications. Banks and financial institutions are favourites.
Welz says Noseweek is not sued as often as one might suspect because it plays the role of the court jester, which means both parties can shrug off a story as a joke. In Noseweek's 10-year history it has only faced two serious lawsuits: the current case relating to the arms deal investigation, and the R2m action by American millionaire dentist Dr Robert Hall six years ago. Hall lost, but the case hurt Noseweek as it was unable to recover any funds from Hall and the magazine survived on donations from its readers.
Two years ago, when the sales hit about 8000, the magazine did a survey of readers, which are, Welz says regretfully, mainly middle-aged, male, rich and influential. It is read in Cape Town's southern suburbs and Johannesburg's northern suburbs. About 8% to 10% of the readers are lawyers, accountants and bankers.
Plans for the next few years include attracting more advertising, but Welz wants no more than four or five pages of advertising, otherwise it annoys readers, and in publications dependent on advertising it dominates the whole process.
Noseweek intends to carry on offering really good stories, but to add to the mix, and to widen its coverage of lesser-exposed areas like environmental issues and the academic world. It is still trying to find a continuously successful formula for its covers.
What Welz dreams of doing is translating Noseweek into a popular, tabloid-style publication, telling the same sort of stories but in 300 words or less, simple language and lots of pictures, but for now, he is focussing on keeping the magazine viable.
On the way out Welz discusses with relish what's in the next issue: another story guaranteed to cause consternation and hilarity in different corporate boardrooms. He displays not a trace of anxiety about the furious reaction he is likely to get.
With acknowledgements to Charlotte Mathews and the Business Day.