Street Papers: The Importance of Newspaper Vendors in an Age of Digital Journalism

If you’re not from a large city, the following sight might be unfamiliar to you: a vendor on a busy street with a stack of newspapers, offering you an issue in exchange for a dollar or two. If you are in Berkeley, the title of that paper will often turn out to be the Street Spirit — the city’s own street paper.

Street papers are newspapers sold by homeless or low-income individuals, created with the purpose of supporting these communities. They often have a focus on topics such as homeless news, social services, and low-income housing. The first street paper was the Street News, established in New York City in 1989, and following soon after was the Street Sheet, based in San Francisco. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, there are currently over 100 street papers being published in 34 countries across the world, with many major cities having their own paper. 

The vendors who sell these papers are often homeless or have been homeless in the past. Berkeleyside reported that Berkeley’s Street Spirit has about 50-80 vendors from month to month. These vendors pay five cents per copy and keep the proceeds from each sale: $2 per copy. The Street Spirit publishes issues monthly and is currently owned by Youth Spirit Artworks, a Bay Area organization aimed to uplift and empower youth. 

Marion Morris, aged 70, is a vendor for the Street Sheet, the San Francisco-based street paper which is the world’s longest-running street paper. He was stationed at the cross street of Center and Shattuck and been selling the Street Sheet for 17 years. Dressed fully in Warriors gear and sporting a shiny Street Sheet vendor name tag, he called out to the passerby, hoping to make a sale. He makes 50 dollars a day on a good day, meaning about 200 dollars a week on average. At the time, Marion wasn’t homeless. But he had been in the past.

Morris often notices prejudice when he’s working, but he doesn’t seem fazed by it. “You have some people come by, and look at you, like ‘Why don’t you get a job?’. I’ve had people come by and call me all kinds of things. But that’s them.” 

And getting a job isn’t easy. “You know, I’ll be 70 soon. A lotta people don’t want to hire me. So I’m going to school, and finishing up so I can get me an office job,” Marion said.

Morris and his wife were taking courses at Berkeley City College. At the time, he was retired after suffering a back injury from a previous job. He hopes that the extra income from selling the Street Spirit will allow him and his wife to stay afloat while he gets a degree. “You know, with the disability, that’s only 800 bucks. You can’t rent anything here for 800 bucks.”  

With that degree, he hopes to find a job that he can sit down at. 

With the decline of print journalism in recent years, most media outlets have pivoted away from printed editions and towards online publication. In 1999, the New York Times had 13,300 newspaper vending machines, as reported by CNN. In 2015, the number was just 39. A key aspect of street papers, as defined by the National Communication Association, is that street papers do not use traditional means of distribution such as newsstands, vending boxes, or retail stores. How then, can street papers survive?

The answer lies in a distinction regarding the purpose of a street paper. Though they are newspapers, the primary mission of a street paper is not to increase readership but to bring visibility to homeless issues and advocate for solutions for the low-income community. By relying on their traditional sales model, street papers can push forward visibility for marginalized communities.

At every point of sale, a connection is made between members of society that may not have connected otherwise. People who buy newspapers from vendors are able to recognize the humanity of homelessness and poverty. And these human connections allow for further understanding to begin. Since the core value of street newspapers is in the human-to-human contact, it makes sense for these papers to stay in print and to stick with their original distribution model.

In an age where print journalism seems to be disappearing (Business Review at Berkeley itself is a wholly online publication), an unlikely foothold can be seen in these impactful organizations.

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