Homeless Newspapers Head Uptown

From focus groups to celebrity coverage, street papers look to increase appeal

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Outside a Trader Joe's grocery in northwest Portland, geared toward middle-class customers in search of gourmet grub, 59-year-old Roger Gates is working his regular six-hour shift on the sidewalk. He's chatting up customers about Street Roots, a nonprofit newspaper founded in 1998 to advocate for the homeless.

In the four years he has sold it, the 'street paper' has grown from a small and scruffy monthly to a professionally edited bimonthly providing insight into everything from city hall politics to the crisis in Darfur. 'We're starting to cover global issues, things going on around the world,' Gates says. 'We're getting better and better all the time.'

It's not the sort of coverage most customers expect when they hand over their pocket change. Street papers typically have been just a few pages long, their all-volunteer staffs unconcerned with aesthetically pleasing layouts, and focused primarily on stories affecting or reflecting the needs of the indigent. Over the past few years, however, more and more papers like Street Roots have chosen to employ professional writers, publish more mainstream coverage, and put more money into design.

'For some street papers, this means a move away from a grassroots, participatory medium and the 'professionalization' of the sector,' says Kevin Howley, associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. It also means a shift to more 'middle-class content' -- local, national, international, and entertainment news that grabs readers' interest.

The Seattle-based publication Real Change, culling data from focus groups, found that being perceived as a 'homeless paper' fosters low expectations among potential readers. To combat that perception, Real Change revamped its layout and began emphasizing topics such as biofuels and immigration. Other papers have tried publishing more frequently, soliciting ads, and expanding their range of coverage.

'Papers are recognizing that you can't hit people over the head with the word homelessness,' explains Israel Bayer, vice chair of the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA), which provides technical assistance and networking opportunities to member papers.

While these changes have helped some publications achieve a modicum of economic stability, there's also a risk that, in the race to move product, street papers will lose their grassroots relevance and morph into tabloids with a more generic (and less righteous) appeal. That's what's happened to Big Issue, a British paper that has flourished into a glossy commercial publication with an enviable circulation of 123,000 in England and Wales. A household name in Britain, Big Issue still advocates for the homeless and runs articles on pressing social issues, but it's known for its glitzy entertainment news and celebrity-dominated covers. Variations on the British model have sprung up in Africa, Oceania, and Japan.

Still, while they're trying to expand their coverage and base, many North American street papers insist that they're not going to abandon their roots. In order to better cope with harsh publishing realities, these publishers have banded together through the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), which provides consulting services for upstart papers and for older publications that are stuck in the doldrums. INSP and NASNA collaborated to create the Street News Service, which helps papers swap the sort of content that can bring attention to issues facing the economically vulnerable around the globe.