At a time when the mainstream media is struggling, Seattle's Real Change newspaper, best known for its cadre of homeless street-corner vendors, is growing dramatically.
At a time when traditional media is in the doldrums, it’s not often you get an upbeat story about newspapering. This is one of those times.
Seattle’s Real Change newspaper, best known for its cadre of homeless street-corner vendors, is growing dramatically.
Its circulation jumped 41 percent in the last two years alone, according to executive director Timothy Harris, up to 17,000 weekly.
On top of that, the newspaper’s journalism recently won national recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists for a story on the life and death of a man who jumped from the Aurora Bridge. The award is an especially big deal for a paper with a newsroom staff of three.
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It’s a product of the newspaper’s focus the past few years on improving the quality of its articles, Harris said.
“A quality street paper — who knew?” he said with a laugh.
Founded in 1994, Real Change was conceived as “Puget Sounds’s newspaper of the poor and homeless.” This tagline, Harris later learned, was not attracting readers. People would buy the paper and not read it, or they’d forego the paper because they figured it wasn’t about them.
About four years ago, Real Change dropped the “poor and homeless” tagline. In addition, they added two journalists to the staff, rather than relying so much on volunteers. That way, they could maintain higher standards.
Just over two years ago, they began to see a surge in vendors, growing from 230 to about 350 per month. These are the men and women, many of them homeless, who hawk the paper on street corners. The more vendors there are, the more papers are sold. Other street newspapers around the country, which are loosely affiliated through a trade association, operate with a similar formula.
Around 8:30 Wednesday morning, about 40 vendors gathered at Real Change’s Belltown offices, waiting for the new issue to arrive from the presses.
“Here comes the truck!” one man yelled, as a group readied for unloading. One man struggled with a pronounced limp as he carried stacks of papers. They all are eager to hit the streets and make some money.
The increase in vendors, Harris said, “is a mixed bag … It’s a reflection of the level of desperation out there with poor and homeless people.”
Vendors buy the paper for 35 cents and sell it for a dollar. Some vendors make a few bucks and call it quits; others really hustle. The top vendor sold 2,000 papers last month.
Real Change, which is a nonprofit, also helps connect its vendors with social services, and Harris said that task is getting harder as demand grows.
But the product itself, Harris said, is a matter of pride for the vendors.
On Monday, staffer Rosette Royale was named winner of a feature-writing award for newspapers with circulations under 100,000. It’s unlikely the award-winning story, a three-part series called “The Man who Stood on the Bridge,” would have run anywhere else. The subject of the 15,000-word story: a sex offender who jumped off Aurora Bridge.
“The thing that gave me leeway to do it was because it was a paper like Real Change,” Royale said. “We are able to take more risks.”
Indeed, although the paper covers some topics that are part of the mainstream media diet — such as budget cuts to social services — they sometimes come at them from a different perspective. As an example, editor Adam Hyla pointed to the paper’s in-depth reports on the redevelopment of Yesler Terrace, a public-housing project.
In the case of Royale’s award-winning story, it germinated with an item on Bret Hugh Winch’s death in the paper’s police blotter. Initially, Royale thought it would never work as a longer story.
“Who’s going to care about this person?” Royale wondered. But when he began meeting Winch’s friends, a more nuanced picture emerged.
Royale tells the story of a troubled soul who was abused as a child, who has done his time and is trying to follow society’s rules. Perhaps not surprisingly, Winch fails, sometimes through no fault of his own. So does the system that’s supposed to keep him on track.
In the end, Royale takes the reader into Winch’s mind and to the Aurora Bridge railing.
“The story really aligns with our values at Real Change,” Harris said. “A person is not the equivalent of the worst thing they’ve done in their life.”
Despite the recent success, Real Change has at least one thing in common with other print media: They’re not getting rich. Circulation and advertising covers only about 35 percent of costs. For the rest, they rely on donations, mostly from individuals.
Yet as the number of vendors grows, so do the staffing needs. In fact, Harris said Real Change hopes to increase its budget by about $120,000 this year, just to keep up with all the growth.
Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org