Re: Big Issue Cleveland (fwd)

Anitra Freeman (
Tue, 17 Feb 1998 10:34:14 -0800 (PST)

I think I'm going to beat Tom to this one. :)  These are recent comments by
Brian Davis of the National Coalition of the Homeless in Cleveland, who
also puts out the Grapevine, on The Big Issue Issue -- and a reply by
Robert Norse, which I have left intact.

>Date: Mon, 16 Feb 1998 03:
>	We in Cleveland would like to express our support of Jennafer and
>Making Change, but we do not agreethat the Big Issue should be absolutely
>restricted from Los Angeles.   At first Angelo and I thought that this
>was an attack on NASNA and Making Change, but after reading all the
>information and looking at the big picture we feel that L.A. is big
>enough for a community based activist paper and a commercial venture.
>There are enough homeless people and the products are so different I
>think that this can only help both papers.  The Big Issue, it seems, has
>already helped by persuading the City Council not to pursue a licensing
>fee for vendors according to your notes.  This is a good thing for both
>	Sure they may not be the best at communicating with Jennafer, but
>after the amount of hostility that has been generated I can see why.
>There are bigger issues.  This does not have to hurt our movement.
>  	We stand stronger together and not divided.  Anyway here is the
>article that I wrote for the February Grapevine.
>The Big Issue:
>Editorial by Brian Davis, Cleveland Homeless Grapevine
>What is the big deal with the Big Issue?  While there are currently 40
>homeless street newspapers in North America, the street newspaper
>industry has exploded in Europe with approximately 90 papers from
>Scotland to St. Petersburg, Russia.
>There is a newspaper sold by homeless people with its main office in
>London England called The Big Issue.   It has a couple of pages reserved
>for homeless issues, but features many entertainment and current event
>type stories.  It is similar to a smaller Life magazine with some
>progressive thought thrown in; and is sold by homeless people.  It is
>slick with splashy headlines and a solid base of advertising.
>The Big Issue allows the vendors to make 40 pence.  They buy the paper
>for 40 pence and sell it for 80 pence.  For comparison, The Grapevine in
>Cleveland assists the vendors to make $.80 to $.85 profit on each paper.
>They sell a ton of papers each week.  This is a big business.  The Big
>Issue supports a foundation in which they fund other social service
>organizations. The paper is not an organizing paper, but a solid job for
>homeless people.  The paper has a wide audience, and is pretty easy to sell.
>The Big Issue has expanded to Edinburgh, South Africa, Australia, and
>many cities throughout the mother country.  They now have decided to come
>to the Los Angeles market with its over 8.5 million possible population.
>The one problem is that there is a new, small street paper based out of
>Santa Monica that publishes every other month that may be hurt by the Big
>Issue.  Santa Monica is just outside of L.A.
> This has caused quite a stir in the street newspaper movement.  In 1997,
>the North American Street Newspaper Association was born (see Issue 23).
>The group has taken on this issue as a primary focus over the last two
>month.  I say, "Forget it and move on."  There are far bigger problems to
>tackle then attempting to control other media outlets.
>If this was actually a grassroots Street newspaper that focused on local
>issues about poverty then there might be a case for some action.  But not
>in a huge city like Los Angeles and not with a paper that has very few
>stories about homelessness.  I think that it can only help the street
>newspaper movement.  I say come to Cleveland.  We would love to have
>England's Big Issue.  Both of our papers would improve.  The Big Issue
>would have to cover local stories if they wanted to compete with our
>paper, and we would be forced to improve the look of our paper to compete
>with the Big Issue.
>There are enough homeless people to support both papers in Cleveland, and
>there are enough to support 6 to 8 papers in Los Angeles. I feel as
>though if there were more businesses that attempted to hire homeless
>people the world would be a better place.
>Make no mistake, the Big Issue is a business venture first with a twist
>of social concern to add a little flavor.  Those people who want to
>trudge through a bunch of advertisements to read about the night Diana
>died or the Resurrection of Sid Vicious' musical career will pick up the
>Big Issue.
>Those who want to read the words of homeless people and find out about
>what is going on in the homeless community but don't mind the somewhat
>archaic layout style will buy the papers that are like the Grapevine.
>Those who just want to provide some direct assistance to the homeless and
>very low income will buy both papers.
>I have a sneaking suspicion that this frenzy over the Big Issue has a lot
>to do with a desire to establish a litmus test on North American street
>newspapers by the most progressive elements of our movement.  In many
>progressive movements there are those who want their comrades in arms to
>be "pure."
>They want to wake up in the morning after the battle is won with those
>who have stayed true to their convictions and have taken the moral high
>ground.  In the homeless organizing movement, the extreme progressive
>element wants only those people who live, breath and eat poverty.  They
>want the white-male dominated, corporate, morally bankrupt system to
>fall.  They isolate themselves from those people and organizations that
>"sleep with the enemy."  Organizations that survive by using corporate
>dollars or are organized like the big bad multinational corporations with
>a white male at the head look too much like the perceived enemy.
>The problem with all this is that there are not enough of those
>organizations of such high character in existence.  They isolate
>themselves to the point that there are only a select few that can pass
>the purity  litmus test.  Those select few that can pass the test are so
>battle worn from fighting for every single cause with a folk song
>attached to it that the movement peters out and dies.
>The reason that the multinationals are kicking our asses is that they
>have one single thing in which they rally around-money.  Everything
>revolves around money.  If an organization wants to be a part of their
>club, all they have to agree to is that profit is the reason for their
>existence.   From selling medicine to prison oversight to art to ice
>cream, all of the corporations have profit in common.
> A writer in the Nation noted recently that the system of keeping the
>progressive movement weak could not have been designed by conservatives
>to work better than it does.  There are thousands of organizations that
>fight for women's rights, trees, homeless people, children, and animals,
>and never do they meet at a common table.  If progressives are ever going
>to succeed, they have to come together and stop putting up barriers to
>forming alliances.
>We have to figure out what we have in common and send that ship into
>battle.  [A side note:  The true progressives hate when organizations use
>war metaphors.  It is violent, cold, and demonstrates a clear lack of
>understanding and ill will toward the women of the movement or something
>like that].
> I say bring on the British.  They are not competition for most North
>American papers.  They are competition to the so-called "alternative
>media."  Our grandfathers in the progressive movement fought against the
>monopolies of Morgan and Rockefeller, and today we are fighting to corner
>the market on employing homeless people.  We should have room for all who
>are fighting for human rights-no matter how that manifests itself.
>Brian Davis

Following from Robert Norse:
>Dear Brian
>	Thanks for your letter and editorial.  Here are my thoughts.
>	New York City is an even bigger city than L.A., yet Indio of
>Street News found TBI's proposed entry there a significant threat.  His
>paper was even better established than Jennafer's.  Are you suggesting
>that his concerns are and were unfounded?  If such a large and
>well-established street newspaper has gennuine concerns about TBI's
>impact, how much more real those concerns must be to a small paper.
>	An alternative paper editor in L.A.(who looked upon the
>Bird-Waggoner talks as positive) nonetheless told me that Jennafer's
>concerns about TBI opening in the L.A./Santa Monica area were not idle
>fears. The abstract "free enterprise" "let a thousand newspapers bloom"
>argument, while it sounds nice, may not accurately reflect the real
>impact TBI has had in past cities where it has come in.
>	TBI, other than Bird's reported statement that there are no more
>homeless papers in cities where TBI has set up, has not provided NASNA or
>Jenafer with any information on this subject yet--in spite of repeated
>requests.  We obviously need this kind of date to make an informed decision.
>	TBI has also not clarified what kind of loyalty it feels to its
>own rules (the INSP charter's supposed provision 7).  I'm still waiting
>for their press office to forward the Competition/Commercialization
>Subcommittee a copy of the actual charter, to say nothing of mechanics of
>how members can use it, whether members have successfully done so in the
>past, etc.
>	As for TBI's "communication skills" problems, I think they can
>conmmunicate just fine.  They have simply chosen to ignore NASNA and
>Making Change until after a huge ruckus forced them to turn around.
>Their problems are not a function of Jennafer's hostility, but of their
>own secretive and unilateral decisions.
>	I think TBI has the resources to postpone its publication while
>we all look the situation over carefully and cooly.  The heat in the
>current debate stems from (a) its secretive process in arriving in  L.A.
>and (b) its refusal to acknowledge its errors and show some respect for
>NASNA and Making Change by holding up on publication.
>	TBI could do us all a big favor (themselves included) by simply
>announcing they were delaying publication, setting up full-scale
>discussions and communication exchange with NASNA, and forwarding to us
>the specifics about their impact elsewhere.
>	It may well be true that TBI is more of a threat to alternative
>weeklies than to a homeless bi-monthly.  Still it has been "sponsered"
>and "invited" to L.A. by breakaway homeless journalists, now reportedly on
>TBI payroll.  The paper will be sold by homeless vendors and use the
>"homeless" label as a selling point.
>	Jennafer has suggested that while the total population of the
>area is huge, the vendor network is not.
>	On the broader issue of whether TBI is good or bad for homeless
>journaism, I think the jury is still out.  Some say it "dumbs down"
>things.  Others suggest it is irrelevant and should be positively
>assessed for giving its vendors a cash source and for being a good
>charity.  I am still waiting to get info from TBI and others abroad so we
>can see what the facts are.
>	I think this debate stems far less from "ideological purity"
>concerns than from the specific conditions under which TBI came in and its
>current "we'll do what we want" posture.  I also think that some in NASNA,
>eager to emulate and TBI's commercial success and gain it as a powerful
>ally, are letting their anxiety Jat offending TBI overrule legitimate
>concerns about its impact.
>	I do not feel we can allow their understandable eagerness to
>reassure TBI that it's in friendly territory overrule our previously
>expressed concerns of how they treat NASNA members and what their impact
>on homeless journalism is, until those questions have solid answers (or,
>at least, some answers).  To do so would send out a fatal message to small
>NASNA members that they cannot expect support if it means standing firm
>where it might offend a rich potential ally.
>	We have received no substantive info from TBI since NASNA decided on
>January 8th to support opposing TBI in L.A. at this time.  What new data
>has come to your attention that should make NASNA change its mind?  It's
>almost as though some on our Board are trying to tell The Big Issue--hey,
>don't let a NASNA resolution stand in your way.  Now that we know
>you're determined to come in despite what NASNA says, oh well!
>Now that you've had a meeting or two with us, everything's okay (in spite of
>the fact that nothing concrete has yet come out of those meetings).
>	When Bird made his decision to come in, regardless of what NASNA
>or Making Change feels, some NASNA members decided to throw all our
>concerns and reservations overboard.  I continue to feel that this is
>unwise at best and strikes at the core of what our organization is
>supposed to do--support fledgling newspapers.
>	I agree with you that TBI should not be absolutely restricted
>from Los Angeles.  It concerns me that my inquiries (and Jennafer's
>questions) continue to be ignored by TBI.  Perhaps you might have more
>success getting what I feel is important and non-controversial info from
>TBI.  Or perhaps you have other sources in England and Europe that could
>give us a better picture  I include a copy of my recent (unanswered) letter.
>	As for TBI's impact on Santa Monica and L.A. City Council re: the
>vending ordinance.  Naturally, any ally in a storm is welcome.  You might
>talk to Jennafer ( about exactly how this happened.  What
>Big Daddy gives, Big Daddy can take away.  TBI did not reportedly
>approach the Council inn open forum and in concert with other papers, but
>it happened behind closed doors.  I'm glad it happened, but not quite
>sure what its significance is for broader homeless rights struggles.
>	Whatever our views about TBI in North America generally, or in
>L.A. somewhere down the road, I feel solidarity with Jennafer now, while
>she's trying to negotiate is vital, if we are to hang together as an
>organization.  I understand you have honest differences of opinion with me.
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