Last week I went down to Seattle and Portland with my colleagues Carolyn Wong, Sean Condon, and Jessica Hannon. We were on a street newspaper tour visiting two of the best papers in North America – Real Change News in Seattle and Street Roots in Portland. The goal of our trip was to get a sense of how these two award-winning community papers were coordinating their street vendors and if there were lessons for the vendor program that is shared between Hope in Shadows and Megaphone.
We rolled into Real Change in Seattle and sat down with Tara Moss who leads the vendor program. By way of context Real Change has 350 active vendors – compared to Hope in Shadows’ 200 and Megaphone’s 35. Right away I was impressed to hear that Real Change had an incredible focus on getting vendors out on the street selling the paper. They recognize that having vendors earning income is their chief contribution to improving the lives of people living in extreme poverty and their vendor program is set up to facilitate this goal.
One of the main points Tara made was that Real Change is very intentional about the services they offer to vendors. The office is open a few hours each day so that vendors can “hang-out” in the space – use computers, grab a coffee, and connect with other vendors. Outside of these set hours however, vendors only use the space to purchase their papers. Real Change has made the choice not to attempt to duplicate services offered by social service organizations - direct service, personal advocacy, legal education. The services they do offer are focused on supporting their vendors earn income.
The Real Change vendor program has a number of incentive programs that are aimed at motivating vendors to get out on the street and sell papers. The most important of these programs is “turf” allocation through the 300 and 600 sales clubs. When a vendor sells 300 papers a month they have their choice of a part-time shift (4 hours) at the sales location of their choice. When a vendor sales 600 papers a month they have their choice of a full-time sales location. Real Change does a great job of posting the newspaper sales by turf so that vendors know which selling locations offer the greatest potential for sales. Although there are critiques of this system, for me it strongly re-enforces the core mandate of the paper – having vendors earn income by selling.
After four hours with the Real Changers we head on to Portland. The following morning we arrived at the Street Roots office in downtown Portland at 9:30. The sales office was busy with vendors, staff, and the hum of computers. We were introduced to a number of the vendors and the staff. After a conversation with their powerhouse ED Israel Bayer we settled into a discussion with their vendor coordinator Cole Merkel. I found Cole's outlook on vendor services refreshing - during our meeting he was constantly ending his sentences with "getting the vendor out on the street selling.” The more Cole talked about the vendor program at Street Roots, the more I felt that the entire modus operandi of the vendor network was driven by a strong desire to have vendors succeed at selling the paper. The additional services that Street Roots provides to vendors (coffee, computers, and soon to be haircuts and foot care) are set-up to support that goal.
As the Chair of the Megaphone Magazine and as someone who has worked on the Hope in Shadows project for the past 8 years, I was deeply impacted by the paradigm that both Real Change and Street Roots bring to their vendor programs. In Seattle Tara made it really clear that Real Change is focused on helping vendors make a living; in Portland Cole made it clear that the entire vendor program is focused on getting vendors out on the street selling. After these conversations I was left with many questions about the vendor program shared by Hope in Shadows and Megaphone. What is the focus that underpins our program? Are we coordinating our services so that vendors can succeed at earning income? What are some changes we could make today that would help our vendors become most successful on the street? These are the questions we are going to be trying to answer over the next few months.
It was a total pleasure to drive down to Portland with Carolyn, Jessica, and Sean. It was also really amazing to get an intimate look into two very successful street newspapers. We also managed to walk around Portland, enjoying the neighbourhoods, the bookstores, and the (VooDoo) doughnuts. Thanks to the people at Real Change and Street Roots for welcoming us so warmly!