[Hpn] Street newspapers' dilemma: money vs. mission
Morgan W. Brown
Sat, 20 Jul 2002 07:37:58 -0400
Saturday, July 20, 2002
Boston Globe <http://www.boston.com/globe>
Metro section: City & Region News
Street newspapers' dilemma: money vs. mission
By David Abel, Globe Staff, 7/20/2002
Like many hardened activists, Mora LaMountain yearned for a permanent
soapbox, one that would give voice to the legions of homeless in Southern
So, like a growing number of activists, the 41-year-old started a street
newspaper called Making Change, a feisty quarterly sold by the homeless on
the streets of Santa Monica.
Then came competition. The Big Issue, a chain of weekly street magazines
from London featuring celebrity profiles, also sought to put money in the
pockets of homeless vendors. But LaMountain was horrified.
''They were trying to sell a glossy puff piece that had no real social
conscience,'' said LaMountain, who called it The Big Tissue. ''It seemed
like they were trying to make money off the backs of poor people.''
Now, as scores of editors and publishers of street newspapers, many of them
once homeless, meet this week in Boston, they're confronting a dilemma: Do
they preserve their mission of giving voice to the homeless, or do they put
more money in their pockets by publishing papers with a broader reach?
''It's the capitalists vs. the anarchists,'' said Norma Green, a journalism
professor at Columbia College in Chicago, who has studied the rise of street
papers. ''There are those who would sooner jump off a cliff than take an ad,
and there are others who support whatever is necessary to help the homeless
and get their message out.''
A decade ago, street newspapers were novelties, rants against corporations
and screeds about unresponsive government. Today, what started out as a
means of helping the homeless help themselves is increasingly becoming an
institution. There are now 45 street newspapers in North America and more
than 100 elsewhere, from Australia to Argentina.
The problem, some say, is that instead of running essays and poems by the
homeless, too many are publishing entertainment news and catering to
advertisers and corporate donors. As a result, feuds such as that between
Making Change and The Big Issue are popping up around the country.
In Chicago, the debate about the direction of street newspapers - which
publishers provide to homeless vendors, who buy them for little to nothing
and sell them for a profit - reached a high point last year when several
staffers at StreetWise quit because they believed the paper was selling out.
One of them, associate editor Kari Lydersen, says the paper was more
interested in profit than people. ''We were even discouraged from writing
about poverty,'' she said. ''It was all pro-corporate America and
entertainment. There was no point anymore.''
Some argue, however, that supporting such an idealistic mission as helping
the homeless requires a measure of pragmatism.
When he started in street newspapers a decade ago, helping found Boston's
Spare Change in 1992, longtime activist Timothy Harris wanted nothing more
than to provide a permanent voice to the voiceless. But he also wanted
something people would read.
Since moving to Seattle and starting Real Change, one of the nation's
largest street papers with about 30,000 copies sold every two months, he has
sought a middle ground. He runs ads and rather than writing just for the
poor, he aims at reaching the middle class, running columns such as ''News
You Can Use'' and ''Notes from the Kitchen.''
''You can be professional without selling out,'' he insisted. ''Street
papers have to start writing for their readers, or else they're going to
fold - and they won't be able to carry the voices that other papers don't
One paper on the cusp of folding is Sacramento's Homeward Street Journal,
whose editor, graphic designer, and sometimes writer, Gary Lee Parks, lives
on the steps of a church and struggles to get by on the $100 a month he
earns from helping publish the paper.
The paper, like many others, doesn't accept ads and survives on grants. In
hard economic times, grants aren't a sure thing, and Parks says the
five-year-old paper could go under any time.
''It's a struggle,'' he said, ''but it's a worthwhile struggle.''
A few hours away, in Santa Monica, where LaMountain first began distributing
Making Change from her pickup truck four years ago, the struggle up to now
has not been for naught.
Though like other papers, she runs into problems with police banning the
homeless from selling the paper on certain corners, her paper has survived
into its 16th issue and has a quarterly circulation of about 5,000. It has
even earned enough money for the paper to afford a laptop computer.
And, best of all, she has outlasted the competition. About a year after The
Big Issue started showing up on corners around Los Angeles, its publishers
decided the costs were too high and decided to close the operation.
''You could call that sweet justice,'' LaMountain said.
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com.
This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 7/20/2002.
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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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