This must be my week to be annoyed by reporters.
Fresh on the heels of Seattle Weekly's probing, "Can Real Change vendors be too successful" article of last week, comes a companion piece in the May/June issue of the Utne Reader, asking the same question about streetpapers themselves.
This story, by Jake Thomas, a Portland freelancer, asks if writing about topics other than homelessness, having staff, being more than a few pages long, and caring about layout, has put some members of the streetpaper movement on the road to watered down entertainment journalism for the middle class.
The answer is a resounding "maybe." "For some papers," says Kevin Howley, an associate professor of media studies at DePauw University, "this means a move away from grassroots participatory medium and the 'professionalization' of the sector."
If you're anything like me, you're asking yourself now, "Who the fuck is Kevin Howley, and what does he know about anything?"
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, we can find out. Here he is talking to the Chicago Tribune about how "celebrities help us to fill the vacuum of identity" brought on by modernity. Here's Howley again being quoted on the You Tube/Google deal in the Christian Science Monitor. "Can the Utube ethos survive in a commercial context?" he asks. Good question. My guess is that a company that was sold for $1.65 billion was probably already operating in a commercial context, but what do I know? And here he is again, in the Philadelphia Enquirer, discussing America's "historical amnesia." That pretty much exhausts his press clips, but, wow, is there anything this guy doesn't know?
In all fairness, Professor Howley has a book, published in 2005, on community media, where he profiles Street Feat in Halifax, NS, as a sterling example of grassroots independent media. This is certainly one of those little papers that runs on heart. But wait! Their website looks like the most recent issue available was published a year ago!
So the ideal grassroots homeless newspaper, says associate professor Kevin Howley of DePauw University, is one that's so grassroots it's actually deep underground. As in dead.
The article really isn't so bad, and on balance it's a positive piece. It's just one of those fish riding a bicycle stories. "Look, a homeless newspaper holding reader focus groups and operating in a marginally competent manner! Should they really be doing that?"
My favorite loaded sentence: "While these changes have helped some publications achieve a modicum of economic stability, there's also a risk that, in the race to move product, streetpapers will lose their grassroots relevance ..."
Revealingly, reporter Jake Thomas' journalism blog has a listing of Portland media. Street Roots, one of the more kick-ass grassroots papers in the country, isn't listed. Conclusion? Streetpapers aren't really media. And when they start to look like they might be, it probably means they've sold out.