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August 9th, 2006 Jake Thomas | News Stories
 

New Roots

Paper sold by the homeless isn't writing only about the homeless anymore.

     
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IMAGE: RENEE BIELAWSKI
Homeless vendors of Portland's Street Roots have been street-corner fixtures since 1998, when they began peddling a street paper focused almost exclusively on homelessness and poverty.

But Street Roots has been trying in recent years to become more marketable—with some success—by broadening its 16-page editions beyond homelessness to include other local, national and international news.

The changes track with the transformations by many of America's 29 street papers from scraggly, amateurish publications to papers with appeal to a broader readership.

Local vendors largely laud the change because it's meant they sell more papers. And selling more of the $1 papers means they get more of their 70-cent cut out of each sale.

"I move the paper,'' says vendor Roger Gates, 59, who now makes enough money for a room after two years of homelessness. "I support myself."

But while more readers are buying the paper and vendors are making more money, the change does raise a question: Will the paper gradually marginalize homeless issues?

SR editor Joanne Zuhl says the paper will still be an outlet for the homeless, but she says SR is "absolutely" taking a page from street papers' changes in Seattle and elsewhere.

Over the past three years, Zuhl—who became editor in 2003—and former SR director Israel Bayer have remade what Bayer calls a "fringe paper" by using more local professional writers rather than volunteers and concentrating on a broader range of issues.

In its Aug. 1 issue, for example, the 16-page edition included articles about a Brazilian street paper, a National Labor Relations Board ruling on labor laws, a Brookings Institute report on the gap between rich and poor, welfare reform, the death of a Portland AIDS activist, Astoria's economy, and an activist who opposes the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga.

In 2003, SR was a monthly publication that featured three or four articles, all relating to local homeless issues, coupled with poetry written by homeless people. In April 2004, SR went to twice a month and began running articles about national homeless issues in addition to local issues other than on homelessness. SR continued its change last year by including national and international affairs from the North American Street Newspaper Association's news service, and news of local activist campaigns and from other street papers. The poetry remains, as do writings by homeless people and a list of services available to the homeless.

The shift among street papers nationally toward more "'middle-class' content, at its best, demonstrates how issues of social and economic justice are...not only or simply a local problem," says Kevin Howley, associate professor of media studies at DePauw University in Indiana.

Zuhl says SR's revamping boiled down to vendors' ability to sell the paper. These changes have paid off in circulation, which has climbed from 2,000 five years ago to as high as 7,000 (the numbers come from SR and are not independently audited). Nearly a dozen vendors support themselves completely from the paper, making up to $60 on a good six-hour shift.

Zuhl attributes the circulation growth to broader content with wider appeal to SR's readership, which she describes as "progressive people who care about their community."

 
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