April 27, 2020

Many news outlets have kept publishing, even in the face of physical distancing and shelter-in-place orders. But for street newspapers and magazines — publications sold by individuals experiencing homelessness or who are low-income — the pandemic has brought more challenges.

“It’s been really, really hard for everybody,” said Tim Harris, who started Real Change, a weekly newspaper with a professional news staff, in Seattle in 1994.

Street newspapers and magazines are located throughout the world. While the model is often different depending on the city and publication, vendors typically purchase a batch of newspapers or magazines for a percentage of the sale price and sell them for a cover price on the street or curbside. The extra money earned is theirs to keep.

For vendors, money is a motivating factor, Harris said, but it’s not the only factor. The relationships they make that take them out of social isolation are key.

“The loss of that for people has been very, very difficult,” said Harris, who also founded another street newspaper in Boston.

Real Change employees have been encouraging readers to support vendors through Venmo, the payment app. And they’re thinking about ways to sell the paper while physically distancing, including by setting up a table so people can pick up the paper and set down their money while maintaining distance — keeping the vendors as safe and approachable as possible under the circumstances, he said.

Harris said Real Change was first affected by the coronavirus about a month and a half ago, when large gatherings were prohibited. As more people started working from home, circulation fell by 30 to 40% because there were fewer people on the street, he said.

When the stay-at-home order was issued in Washington state, they suspended street sales of the paper altogether. Real Change continues to publish online, but vendors are not able to sell it on the street.

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“Technically our vendors could be out selling the paper because we’re a newspaper and we’re considered an essential industry … but we just feel like it would be irresponsible,” Harris said, adding that they anticipate the stay-at-home order being lifted sometime in May. “We’re anticipating that for the next year and a half we’re going to be moving in and out of stay-at-home orders, so we are preparing ourselves to be flexible about that.”

Real Change has started a vendor relief fund and is distributing gift and cash cards to vendors. They are also putting together food packages, helping them apply for unemployment benefits and gain access to their stimulus checks, he said.

Vendors will also be able to sell Real Change-branded hand sanitizer when they return to street sales.

The International Network of Street Papers currently consists of over 100 street papers in 35 countries, publishing in 25 different languages. More than 20,000 vendors earn an income by selling street papers each year.

Maree Aldam, chief executive of the network, said in an emailed statement that many members have moved their journalistic operations online for now, focusing on producing content for their websites and social media, or creating digital copies of their publications.

“Many are offering digital copies at a fixed price, or short term solidarity subscriptions, which allows them to source income for vendors immediately and looks ahead to when this outbreak is contained and people can return to the streets,” she said in the statement. “Others are offering annual subscriptions and making a big push for these — many street papers already had subscription availability and they are taking this situation as an opportunity to promote that.”

In Dallas, Suzanne Erickson oversees the STREETZine paper, which started in 2003. It has about 15 vendors and publishes monthly. It had just been revamped before the pandemic hit. The team shared the newspaper on social media and on the website.

“We used it as a tool to get donations from people,” she said, adding that they have been giving gift cards to vendors.

STREETZine is part of a larger organization called The Stewpot, which offers various services, including meals, casework assistance and more. When the shelter-in-place order was issued in Dallas County, they started looking at the various programs and how each would be affected, she said.

Some vendors have housing, she said, so they may be having trouble with rent or food. Representatives with the newspaper have been using a case-management approach to figure out how they can help vendors because they don’t have the income of the paper, she said.

“There’s a lot of unknowns,” she said. “I think they are used to us kind of having the stability and knowing how to help them, but there’s a lot of stuff outside our control.”

Kristi Eaton is a freelance journalist and Tulsa Artist Fellow in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Visit her website at KristiEaton.com. 

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