I drove to Portland today for the North American Street Newspaper Association conference. Cruise control at 78 MPH is a wonderful thing. Especially when you get to accelerate. In case anyone's curious, it takes three Leonard Cohen CDs to get from Seattle to Portland. Songs of Love and Hate, Ten New Songs, and The Future. Actually, I listened to Democracy (the video of this live posted above nearly brings me to tears every time; click link for lyrics) and Always twice, but that's just how that CD is supposed to be played.
There are around 50 people from 17 papers from around the US and Canada here. It's a pretty DIY affair. Most of the food is donated. We're in the University of Portland dorms. The whole conference is taking place in some classroom space on the 2nd floor. There's like 4 cheap places to eat across the street. I could go through the whole conference without spending more that twenty bucks or walking more than half a block. Street Roots organized the thing on about $8,000. They're amazing.
So I was more than a little disappointed to see how Willamette Week welcomes a poor people's conference to town. They ran an unbelievably snarky article painting this as some kind of a poverty pimp conference because we're not all homeless.
The Seattle Weekly has met their match. Reporter Rachel Schiff fastened on the fact that small, cash strapped, organizations prioritize sending staff people instead of homeless vendors to paint a picture of streetpapers gone corporate. Then she uses the recent growth and success of Street Roots to support her thesis. If they're succeeding, she implies, it must be because they've sold out.
I spent an hour with her on the phone over the course of three phone calls, gave in depth answers to her questions, and emailed her the NASNA strategic plan and the background document behind it that describes a severely under developed movement with a dire need for technical assistance. What does she print?
Street Roots' success contrasts with many street papers that are struggling or showing no growth. Former NASNA president and current board member Timothy Harris attributes that stagnation to failures to improve content or to operate as a small business.
"Novelty gets a paper off the ground," Harris says. "Then the product must evolve or die."
I'm quite sure I never said "the product." I heard one of our staff do that once and told him it bugged me. It's just not a phrase I would use. But it's a nice way to make me sound like some kind of a dick with an MBA hanging on my wall.
I do this work for fifteen years without ever seeing this sort of thing, and then in the space of four months, we see articles asking if street papers are too successful in the Seattle Weekly, Utne Reader, and Willamette Week.
What's up with that?
Instead of being effective and actually helping people, we're supposed to fulfill their romantic fantasies about the poor by being these little rags that homeless people put out on old typewriters as they're trying to keep warm on a steam grate somewhere. Fuck that. And Fuck the Willamette Weekly.