Street Papers: The Low Down



Just last month, the media network News Corporation caused some contention as it implemented an online subscription system for The Times and Sunday Times – two of the UK’s most widely read papers1. In an interview, NC’s Chief Executive, Rupert Murdoch said - “we can no longer afford to give away news for free.” It’s a fair point – newspapers have come up against a whole range of difficult issues in recent years- diminishing sales, compulsory redundancies and huge cuts in corporate advertising budgets, to name a few. Perhaps charging for online access is the only viable way forward if newspapers are to continue to exist as profitable entities.   


But, putting private sector news empires to one side, the recent debate left me wondering about a group of NGOs that rely on the profits generated from newspaper sales to help homeless people off the streets. Street newspapers, or "street papers" are independent newspapers and magazines sold by homeless people in approximately 40 countries across the globe. The purpose is to give homeless people a first step into business – "a hand up, not a hand out"2.  To find out more about street papers I went to visit Danielle Batist, Street News Service Editor at the International Network of Street Papers (INSP) – an umbrella body set up in 1994 which extends its support to over 100 street papers across the globe. 


Being rather set on the idea that street papers were up against similar problems to their private sector counterparts, the first topic I sought to address with Danielle was how street papers were going to make the shift online, whilst continuing to abide by their founding principle of getting homeless people to work for themselves. I felt it was an important question – a shift to online sales would clearly have major implications for the operation of street papers, and undermine their raison d’etre.   


Admittedly, I was a little disappointed when Danielle told me that the idea of charging for digital content was fairly low on the agenda of a lot of street papers. She went on to explain that although newspapers may be struggling, street paper sales are continuing to boom. Whilst newspapers are highly competitive in terms of pricing, securing story exclusives and wide availability, street papers are a niche product – they cannot be sold in shops, geographical areas are "covered" by the same street paper, and sales levels are dependent not so much on price or content as the vendor-purchaser relationship. It certainly makes sense. She went on to say that at the 2010 Annual Conference of street papers in Melbourne, extensive discussion was had around the use of new media as a way of moving forward, and although many of the street papers are using it to generate interest, it was generally agreed across the board that they did not want to venture too far from the core of their business – which is built around buyer-vendor street interaction.


In spite of this initial blow, all was not lost on my quest for interesting information about street papers in current times. Something that did emerge from our discussion is that street papers are having to adapt to meet the social needs of their vendors, even if it does mean compromising on the "street selling" principle. In Australia, the The Big Issue is undertaking a new initiative which sees homeless women going into corporate environments to sell the paper on a subscription basis. This is being undertaken in response to research which indicated that there were significantly fewer female vendors than male vendors in many countries – the findings indicated that this was not because there were fewer homeless women on the streets in general, but that selling street papers was not a viable business for women, many of whom are too vulnerable to undertake work of this nature, having been subject to past abuse. This new initiative will hopefully prove to be a solution to help women off the streets whilst still involving them in selling street papers in the public domain.  It certainly seems like a viable alternative - and I’ll be waiting to hear how they get on.


Danielle also talked about another challenge - generating quality content for street papers.   As charitable enterprises, street papers don’t have budgets to pay people sizeable amounts to write articles for their papers.  In order to address this problem, an online Street News Service was established back in 2002 – an independent, alternative online news agency, which brings together the best of street paper journalism from newspapers around the world. Basically, through the use of the internet, it enables street papers editors across the continents to exchange and generate content. This means that if one editorial team gets its hands on an exclusive story – say with Bob Dylan, like The Big Issue in the UK did in 2009 - all other street papers have the copyright to publish it too. The SNS  is constantly striving for improvement, and last year alone managed to extend its online reach from 50% of street papers to 63%. It just shows the power of the internet to make a real difference…


Now I think it’s fair to say that although stories and blog entries often don’t work out quite the way you want them to, they always end up with interesting perspective in the end. For more information about INSP, please visit the new website.




[1]From now on, readers will have to pay £2 a week to subscribe to the papers, or £1 for daily online access, rather than reading them free-of-charge



[2]Logistically, homeless people buy copies of street papers at a price of 50% or lower than the cover price, and it is then over to them as official vendors to sell copies on and generate profit.




NGO, internet, Homeless, Journalism, World Poverty