Article 25

Opportunity for Street Smart Journalists

In Uncategorized on 07/30/2013 at 11:18 pm

Street papers embrace the digital future

By Ariana Kateri

 In Portland, Ore., a bright-eyed, middle-aged woman carries 100 copies of a newspaper through the streets. She sells each copy to random passerby. She begins to build a foundation of regular readers, who seek her out just to purchase a copy. She’s chronically unemployed, and the income from the paper helps feed her and her daughter. The same is happening with a young veteran in Toledo, Ohio. In London, England, a grey-haired man with a cane sells newspapers just outside a local business that’s set up a table for him. All around the world you can see this scenario unfolding.

 These people are street-paper vendors. Like Article 25, street papers are non-profit newspapers with original content and a distribution model designed to aid people who need it. Distributors, who are chronically unemployed, homeless, or otherwise financially struggling individuals, go through training to become sellers. After buying each copy for 50 percent, or lower, of the cover price to cover production costs, vendors then sell the paper for $1-$5 (it varies from paper to paper) throughout the community. Distributors keep the profits, which serve as a supplemental income.

“Last year alone we put more than £5 million in the pockets of our vendors, releasing them from a dependence on handouts and providing an alternative to begging,” writes the leadership behind London’s largest street newspaper, The Big Issue.

This journalistic niche is not only providing an original and innovative space for new content, but also provides a chance for people with limited employment options to develop their sense of purpose, self-reliance and work ethic.

 Due to street papers’ primary reliance on a print-based model, however, some street papers are facing the limitations of a strictly print platform. Many times, street-paper vendors lose business due to meeting readers who are in a hurry or when they don’t have cash on hand to buy a paper. Chicago’s street newspaper, Street Wise, recently ventured into the digital world; they created an app readers can use to purchase new issues through their phones or tablets. They can select their favorite vendors to buy from by browsing the available vendor profiles. That contribution goes straight to the street-paper community, whereas it otherwise would have been lost.

The use of mobile technology by Street Wise allows readers and vendors to access each other at all times of the day and from anywhere in the world. Street papers are behind the journalistic field as whole when it comes to adopting new technology to enhance their business model. When asked how he led his business through a tough bankruptcy to emerge as a successful media outlet, John Patton, CEO of Digital First Media, recently said, “By putting the digital people in charge. That’s the only way to do it. You put those people in charge, and then you make sure from an operational-executional point of view that everyone understands they must do what (needs to) get done.”

Street papers might be behind in going beyond print, but as more news organizations begin to see new technologies as part of a smart business strategy, street papers are catching on to the importance of using mobile and social technology. Portland’s street paper, Street Roots, spent 24 consecutive hours on the streets of the city, broadcasting the entire experience on Twitter. Multiple members of the staff, including Managing Editor Joanne Zuhl, spent the full day and night talking to the homeless vendors, readers, shelter volunteers and police officers. The writers and editors live-tweeted their experiences, offering readers a firsthand account of what it is like to experience and observe homelessness for a day from many different perspectives.

 There is a growing demand for the original, value-added content with a purpose, served by the papers in the street-paper network. This demand is still largely unmet because the current platform is limiting. Vendors need to be able to sell these papers in the community to make the supplemental income driving their potential for recovery and quality of life. But for the consumers willing to pay for this content and unable to access the vendors, mobile and social technologies serve all parties and serve a more optimistic future for journalism and ideas. Where these tools were once seen as the death of the newspaper industry, they are now being embraced as opportunities for news outlets to enhance their journalistic mission and better serve their consumers.

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