In every major West Coast city, people who are homeless or living in transitional housing are selling street newspapers on the corners.
Many traditional newspapers have shrunk or moved online in recent years. But the street newspapers in Seattle and Portland are doing better than ever.
On a recent Friday morning in Portland’s Old Town area, vendors who sell “Street Roots” newspapers throughout the city were at the office, learning what was inside the latest issue.
Joanne Zuhl, the managing editor of Street Roots, told her vendors about one of the cover stories — about a man who immigrated to Portland from Liberia and now runs a non-profit for black youth.
“One of those people you don’t necessarily hear a lot about in the community but I think it’s a great story for folks to read,” Zuhl said.
These meetings happen every two weeks, just before the papers arrive in a white van from the printers. Street Roots has been a biweekly paper, putting out 26 issues a year.
But Zuhl noticed a problem with that business model.
Boosting sales — and income
“The second week of sales was always very difficult for folks,” she said. “And they rely on that income for their own vital needs.”
In this day and age, it’s hard to sell people two-week-old news. So about a year ago, Zuhl started a big fundraising push to publish Street Roots once a week.
“If we’re able to go weekly, which is our intention by mid-December, that means greater stability for these men and women and I think a better publication,” she said.
Street Roots’ production would double. Not something you see from newspapers these days.
Zuhl wrote for papers in the Midwest until 2002. She started out volunteering with Street Roots and soon became the paper’s only full-time reporter. Now she’s hiring another reporter to keep pace with a faster news cycle.
It essentially allows stories to come out twice as fast.
“The news cycle here in Portland is more of a weekly cycle for the papers outside the Oregonian,” Zuhl said.
Filling gaps in the media landscape
The Oregonian is the largest paper in the State of Oregon — but it’s recently cut jobs, shrunk its circulation, and moved to a smaller office. That roughly tracks with the print media landscape in Seattle, where one of two major newspapers, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, is now online-only.
But Real Change, Seattle’s street newspaper, is going strong after two decades.
Andrew DeVigal chairs the journalism innovation and civic engagement program with the University of Oregon. He also used to be the multimedia editor for the New York Times.
He said even with all the technology and citizen journalism of today, there are still gaps in the media landscape.
“I don’t think there’s enough perspectives across the coverage of social issues,” DeVigal said.
And social issues are the bread and butter of Street Roots.
The Society of Professional Journalists awarded Street Roots first place for a series on traumatic brain injuries in vulnerable populations. The paper has won more first place awards for journalism in social issues and the arts.
DeVigal said he respects the paper’s decision to go weekly and produce more journalism.
“It ultimately helps the vendors, it helps the community,” he said. “I think that’s a deeply compassionate approach to why you’d want to expand rather than just clearly looking at the bottom line.”
‘I’ll probably be here forever plus one’
Part of the successful model of non-profit street newspapers is the relationships built between readers and the vendors that sell the papers.
Outside the courthouse, public defender Martha Spinhirne buys her copies of Street Roots from Marlon Crump. She explained what she gets out of reading Street Roots.
“I learn about people like Marlon who are working hard to keep themselves off the streets,” she said. “And, you know, I’m a public defender, so it helps me understand a lot of the clients that I deal with.”
The day before, Marlon Crump was honored as vendor of the year at a fundraising event, where he met the mayor.
“And, you know what, they can offer me the Nobel Peace Prize and it still wouldn’t compare to that,” he said.
Crump has sold papers on the same corner for years, sharply dressed with a tie. Sometimes he receives tips well greater than the dollar the paper costs. He has also been invited him to dinner with a customer’s family.
When Crump came to Portland from San Francisco, he found himself homeless. Now he has housing and is able to get by on his newspaper sales.
Some customers congratulated him on the vendor of the year award and asked what’s next—but he said he’s happy on this corner.
“After last night, I’ll probably be here forever plus one,” he said. “If I was to leave Street Roots, that would break everybody’s heart.”
Over 120 papers now make up the International Street Newspapers Association.
Each year, more and more vendors like Crump are selling street newspapers. And it’s an opportunity. But it’s also a reminder of how many people are still experiencing homelessness and poverty — in the Northwest and beyond.