To effectively distribute newspapers is never an easy task, but doing it in remote areas where infrastructure is problematic can often become a nightmare. Independent publisher Anton van Zyl tackles the issue.
The obstacles that get in the way of distributing newspapers in far-flung areas are vast and often quite murky with no clear cut solutions. Because of this, rural publishers have had to be innovative to overcome the obstacles and get their newspapers to their readers.
“The long distances between the various towns and villages are a major challenge in terms of both fuel costs and vehicle maintenance,” says Diphete Bopape. Bopape publishes the Seipone/Xivoni/Tshivhoni newspaper, which carries a cover price and is distributed mainly in the rural areas of Limpopo and part of Mpumalanga. It has articles in all the region’s indigenous languages. “Most deep rural areas only have dirt roads that are poorly maintained, making it difficult to reach certain destinations.”
This sentiment is echoed by Francois Aucamp, publisher of the Bulletin in Tzaneen. “A secondary route that we cover stretches over 320 kilometres and includes Letsitele, Gravelotte, Phalaborwa and Hoedspruit in Limpopo province. We only distribute 1 100 newspapers at these outlets, but we have to do it to ensure a decent footprint,” he explains.
Pieter Jooste, owner of Far North Media Distributors, is also well-acquainted with the perils of distributing in rural areas. His company distributes the Limpopo Mirror and Zoutpansberger in the northern-most parts of the Limpopo Province. Since July 2006 the Limpopo Mirror has been the top-selling community newspaper in the province, with ABC figures that linger around the 9 000 mark.
“A successful distribution strategy depends on a number of factors,” says Jooste. “The editorial content is obviously very important. If it is not a good product, it simply won’t sell.” Other influencing factors are: the weather on distribution day, school holidays and the front page article. “The cover price also needs to be in balance with what the market can afford. A price that is too low is just as bad as one that is too expensive,” he explains. According to Jooste, the Limpopo Mirror’s cover price remained at R2 for a number of years. When it increased, they expected a slight drop in sales, but the opposite happened. “This is because a large number of our papers are sold via street vendors. If they don’t get a reasonable percentage of the cover price, it is simply not worth their while to sell it,” he says.
Bopape also has issues with street vendors. He explains that many vendors don’t have the money to pay upfront for the newspapers and so publishers land up having to extend credit. “The hawkers are unemployed and often disappear when they find employment, taking the papers and money with them,” he says. Jooste agrees that this poses practical problems, but says that the best way to deal with this is to build good relationships with good street vendors and filter out the bad ones.
Life is not easy for street vendors who sell newspapers for a living. It is up to them to protect the papers against rain and the wind. It is not easy to find shelter in harsh conditions, particularly because bus shelters and taxi ranks are ‘protected’ by hawker committees and vendors have to pay a fee for permission to use these areas. “Particularly in summer, newspapers often get destroyed by water as most hawkers don’t have adequate shelter,” says Bopape.
Even transporting bundles of newspapers is a serious problem for vendors. Because of the vastness of the distribution areas, newspapers are delivered to street vendors at pre-determined collection points. From there, the street vendors catch taxis or buses to the more remote villages where a market exists. “It is not unusual for a vendor to earn R200 – R300 on a Friday selling newspapers,” explains Jooste. “In more remote areas you will pay around R5 for a newspaper, even though the cover price indicates that it is only R3. There’s not much that we can or would want to do about this,” he says. Unfortunately for the street vendors, taxi and bus operators have started to charge them an additional fee for transporting the papers.
Taxis and buses play a huge role in the distribution and marketing of the newspaper. Most publishers have vehicles to cover the main routes, but the secondary routes are left to the hawkers. “In some cases the taxi drivers collect newspapers at our offices and take them to remote areas. We even have one driver who collects 100 papers every week to distribute in Pretoria, 400 kilometres away,” says Jooste.
The unreliability of the street vendors is not only a problem for the paid-for newspapers. Helena Raats of Northern News says her staff carefully monitor the distribution team of their free paper. “We have very little tolerance for laziness. If we catch anyone discarding papers, we take action immediately. Because of the demand for the paper, you have to be very selective in your distribution process. Nothing can go to waste,” she says.
Raats should know, as their distribution footprint stretches from Mokopane (formerly Potgietersrus) to Lephalale (formerly Ellisras) in Limpopo, with the outlying areas being as far as Tom Burke on the Botswana border. Being a freesheet produces its fair share of problems, as publishers cannot bulk drop without careful planning. “Outside the main towns, we do bulk drops at the central gathering places, such as ticket offices and shopping centres,” says Raats.
One aspect that all publishers agree on is that your newspaper must be on street, on time. “Timing is everything. If we hit the streets two hours late on a Friday with the Limpopo Mirror, our distribution figures can fall with as much as 25%,” says Jooste. This is especially problematic for someone like Bopape, whose paper has to wait in line at the presses while the mainstream papers get printed. “These delays add a lot of pressure to your distribution process,” he says.
As if street vendors and the elements are not enough to deal with, independent publishers also complain that not all retail outlets are accessible to them. The bigger chain groups are very reluctant to accommodate community newspapers, especially from independent suppliers. “A major clothing and food retailer used to carry our papers, along with all the other magazines and national newspapers. The store then decided to do away with their franchise system and all purchases are now done nationally,” explains Jooste. He was phoned by the head-office who told him that he will have to register as a supplier and sign the necessary contracts. “When I explained that we only sell roughly 60 newspapers per week at the store, I was informed that then they cannot accept the paper as it will be too costly to add us to their database,” Jooste explains.
Both the free papers and the paid-for papers are very cognisant of factors that increase the cost of distribution, such as inserts. Often, at month-end, the community newspapers receive a large number of such leaflets, which dramatically increases the weight of the newspapers. “A street vendor who normally takes a 100 or more newspapers, suddenly ends up in a situation where he can hardly carry 50 newspapers,” says Jooste. In such cases they have to make additional plans to allow the vendors to store their bundles of newspapers at a safe place for later collections.
Asked about the biggest challenge he had to face in the 11 years that he had to deal with distribution, Jooste recalls the time when a local pastor started buying up all the available newspapers. “The Zoutpansberger’s lead story was about a scandal at the church school and the pastor wanted to keep it quiet. He spent a couple of thousand rands buying all the newspapers in the shops,” says Jooste. The only solution was to hurriedly arrange for a reprint of the newspaper and that same afternoon the ‘second’ edition hit the streets. “You have no choice. The newspaper has to reach the readers, whether it rains, snows or someone tries to sabotage your business,” he adds.
This story was first published in a special ‘Newspaper’ supplement for The Media magazine in March 2012