The Press Takes to the Street

By Boukhari, Sophie | UNESCO Courier, February 1999 | Go to article overview

The Press Takes to the Street

Boukhari, Sophie, UNESCO Courier

There are discordant voices in the new international movement to produce street newspapers in aid of the homeless

"It was either that or I was finished," says Chantal. "That" means selling street newspapers. Chantal is 41 and has "a lot to get off her chest". Her story is that of a strict French upbringing, dropping out of school and plans thwarted by her parents. "I was crazy about wild animals and horses," she says. "I always wanted to train animals. And now look at me...."

Chantal had a breakdown in 1996 after failing an exam to become a nursing assistant. "I wanted to kill myself," she says. "But one day I met an old friend and poured my heart out to her. She brought me to my senses and advised me to sell street newspapers."

Since then, Chantal has been selling L'Itinerant to travellers on the Paris underground. She buys her copies for the equivalent of 50 US cents each and re-sells them for three times that, making between $350 and $700 a month. This supplements the minimum assistance benefit of about $430 that she gets from the state.

In Stockholm, a 120-strong sales force

Thousands of marginalized people like Chantal live from selling street newspapers in the big cities of rich countries. But unlike Chantal, who rents a small room, most of them are homeless.

There are about three million homeless people in the countries of the European Union, and three million more in the United States. Many drink or take drugs. In Stockholm, 40 per cent of them are afflicted with paranoia, schizophrenia, or phobias, says Malin Speace, who runs Sweden's only street paper, the monthly Situation Sthlm, which started publication in 1995. The paper prints 15,000 copies and employs 120 of the city's 5,000 or so homeless.

"Selling the paper keeps them occupied during the day," says Speace. "We actually steal their time, to keep their minds off drugs." The paper is also a halfway house between "exclusion" and belonging to society. Two experts help the vendors through the maze of social services, which include projects run by non-governmental organizations, state aid and detox programmes.

The social usefulness of Situation Sthlm seems undeniable. At the very least, it helps the homeless and the unemployed to be less cut off. At best, it helps them to find somewhere to live, some training or a job.

For the past decade, street newspapers and magazines have gone from strength to strength. The first one, Street News, surfaced in New York in 1989, recalls Tim Harris, president of the National Association of North American Street Newspapers. The paper, which depended heavily on corporate donations, was founded by rock musician Hutchinson Persons, and had "somewhat right-wing libertarian politics," says Harris.

The movement then spread across North America and to Europe, and is now growing everywhere except in France, where street papers have faded after getting off to a brisk start in 1993.

Elsewhere, there are over 150 in a score of countries, mostly focusing on social issues and funded by a mix of private donations, advertising revenue, income from sales and public subsidies. Canada has a dozen and the United States more than 40. The biggest ones in the US - StreetWise (Chicago), Spare Change (Boston) and Real Change (Seattle) - sell between 20,000 and 120,000 copies a month. But most are run on a shoestring, print about 20,000 copies each and barely manage to break even.

Tessa Swithinbank, international editor of the British street paper The Big Issue, counted 70 titles in Europe in 1997, half of them in Germany. As in North America, they vary from papers which print 3,000 copies a month to the nearly 300,000 sold each week by The Big Issue, which is now the third favourite paper of young Britons between the age of 15 and 24. It was founded in London in 1991 by a working-class Irishman and former Trotskyite, John Bird, with $50,000 from the natural cosmetic chain The Body Shop. …

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