Long before there was Twitter, there were newspaper posters, or bills as they are sometimes called, condensing the news into far fewer than 140 characters and tempting motorists to grab their favourite paper and read all about it. All the major newspapers in South Africa now take advantage of the electricity poles and streetlights along major routes to hawk their headlines and motorists can often get a good idea of what’s going on in the world before they even reach their offices.
Readers tend to take these morning teasers for granted, but they are the result of much negotiation with city councils and a system that has been constantly refined over 20 years, says Paul Peters, chairman of the street sales committee of Print and Digital Media South Africa (PDMSA). Peters, who has chaired the committee since 1989, is also managing director of Allied Publishing. However, in 1990 he was circulations manager at The Star and thus became responsible for posters as we know them in this country today. The editor of The Star in 1990 was Richard Steyn, who first came up with the idea and approached Peters to start putting up posters. “I told Steyn I’d see what I could do,” says Peters. “We started out on Jan Smuts Avenue, ‘cause that’s the way Steyn drove to work every morning. Then the Saturday Star editor asked me to put some up on Oxford Road, ‘cause that was the way he drove.”
Since those early days, the process has become a lot easier, says Peters. For one thing, in the 1990s, the committee had to liaise with all sorts of stakeholders, such as the city council, roads agencies and the electricity companies who owned the light poles. These days, this liaison is made much easier by the fact that all those tasks are outsourced to a company called Propcom.
The posters themselves have improved too. Back in the early 1990s, they were printed and then glued on to stiff cardboard backs. The distributors would make holes in the cardboard with a sharp knife, pass string through each hole and then tie each one to a lamppost. This led to all sorts of problems. The next night, returning with fresh posters, the distributors would just rip the cardboard down, leaving unsightly old string around each pole. And in summer, Johannesburg’s storms would soak the posters and their mounts and they would slide into the storm water drains, causing blockages.
The city council was incensed and in 1995 threatened to ban street sales and posters altogether. “But we made an agreement on steel frames,” says Peters. These were not only more practical, they were far more economical, as the cardboard had cost about R1 a sheet and there was all the labour involved in gluing and making holes and looping the string and tying them round the poles. Peters says there was concern that the steel frames would be stolen for scrap or building material, but he calculated that if a frame lasted a week, it was worth it. “And in the end we really didn’t have a problem with theft, just from occasional random vandalism, people walking past and knocking them,” says Peters.
The committee drew up an official contract with the City of Johannesburg and rented the poles at a small fee: in those days R25 per pole per month, with two posters per pole. It’s not much more now, to the chagrin of some out of home advertising companies, who have to pay the city council a great deal more for outdoor advertising structures. Peters argues, however, that posters perform a public service, informing people of the news of the day. And to prevent unfair competition with commercial advertisers, newspaper posters are not allowed to feature advertising. If they want to promote a giveaway, they have to use a generic term – tiser, rather than Appletizer, for instance.
In the early days of postering, the allocation of poles and routes was decided at the personal whim of newspaper editors, says Peters. Gradually, however, the committee worked out a system of allocation based on the sales of a newspaper in a particular area. The city is divided up into areas and each newspaper supplies the committee with sales data for that particular area. Then, 50% of the poles in that area are allocated equally to all titles wishing to put up posters there. The remaining 50% of the poles are allocated proportionate to the paper’s sales as a percentage of all newspaper sales there. So, if a particular title sells 2.3% of all the newspapers sold in Sandton, that paper is allocated 2.3% of half the poles in Sandton. Thus, one would see more posters of The Star in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg than Sowetan posters; this would most likely be reversed in Soweto.
Weekly titles only get half the allocation of dailies. The Mail & Guardian, for instance, will poster three days of the week and for the rest of the week, another newspaper occupies their frame. If a newspaper company starts a new title, that title has to share its existing allocation. A newspaper like Business Day, whose circulation is mostly subscription and not copy sales, will have few posters.
The street sales committee is self regulating and has strict rules. Newspapers who put up too many posters per pole, for instance, are infringing. Says Peters: “We have to regulate or we get in trouble with the city council.” The disciplinary procedure is that the CEO of the company and the newspaper editor are warned after one infringement. A second warning involves a fine and a third will result in the newspaper being banned from postering altogether for six months.
The committee has a contract with the cities of Johannesburg and Tshwane, though not with the East Rand (though they are allowed to put up posters there anyway). Sub-committees manage other regions like Durban, Cape Town and East London. They have their own interests and in many cases their own newspapers, but they all follow the same principles of allocation.
Posters are planned by the editors of a publication, processed by the subs desk and then printed and tied up in bundles. Distributors, who in Gauteng are one of about eight empowered contractors, then collect them. The distributors rush them out to the waiting steel frames, which are marked with the paper’s name, and by dawn, they are there, ready to inform commuters and hopefully entice them to buy a copy of that day’s paper.
Not everyone likes the posters, however. When Daily Sun tabloid was first published and began its unique tradition of eye-catching posters (headlines like ‘Evil Panties of Death!’ are sometimes to be seen), council got a lot of complaints from offended commuters, says Peters. The Johannesburg city council itself considers the posters unsightly in ‘green’ areas and will not allow them near the Johannesburg Zoo or in the part of Houghton Drive that runs past The Wilds conservation area. There are also strips of road that have no posters on them because the residents there don’t want them outside their houses.
Posters are about breaking news, says Peters, and a good one should inform readers of what’s going on in the world. They should also tantalise the viewer into wanting to know more. Late legendary Daily Sun publisher Deon du Plessis used to say that a good poster was not like a headline, but rather like a friend telling another friend a bit of juicy gossip. Posters, then, are part of the conversation that newspapers have with their readers and Peters and his committee are there to keep the conversation
This story was first published in a special newspaper supplement as part of The Media magazine.