“Better for vendors, as well as for customers”: Washington DC’s Street Sense goes weekly

By Jill Shaughnessy

Despite uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic over past year, there is good news from the US capital Washington DC, as its street paper Street Sense Media is doing more than just survive – by becoming weekly.

The now weekly edition of the paper will be a positive for both the non-profit organisation and its vendors. By having the paper published more frequently, sellers are expected to increase their total earnings by 40 per cent. Other street papers that have started pushing their content weekly have also noticed this growth, and Street Sense joins just five other street paper publications publishing weekly across the world, including Real Change in Seattle, Street Roots in Portland, StreetWise in Chicago, and Big Issue North and The Big Issue in the UK.

This increase in earnings is also expected to attract new vendors to sell the papers. The additional income will help the vendors meet their basic needs as well as make saving and budgeting easier. Beyond that, those that contribute to the content of the paper, such as writers and artists, will be paid more frequently.

Street Sense vendor Melody on the first day of selling of the new weekly edition. [Credit: Doris Warrell]

In a 2015 analysis of its work, explains editor Eric Falquero, Street Sense found that that the paper’s readership is 74 per cent higher in the first week of its circulation. A weekly paper will be a fresh and exciting change. The feat of actually producing the paper more frequently is not an easy one but thanks to an increase in interest and donations, Street Sense Media was able to hire another full-time editor, Jake Maher. Hiring deputy editor Maher doubled the editorial department of the paper and they are currently hiring more volunteers to contribute to the publication.

“A lot has changed over the past year,” says Falquero. “The pandemic decimated paper sales; street vendors cannot work from home. Our community rallied around us, helping to establish a vendor assistance fund for our case management department and increasingly using our mobile payments app to pay vendors for what is being read at home, or just to provide them extra support.

Street Sense vendor Ron 'Pookabu' Dudley, who interviewed the Chuck D and Tom Morello featuring rock/rap supergroup Prophets of Rage for the street paper network in 2016. [Credit: Doris Warrell]

“But none of this has measured up to the same level of income Street Sense Media vendors earned previously. As our community works through the vaccine rollout and continues to rebuild and recover, we want to be there to meet information needs every week and provide a stronger no-barrier work opportunity than ever before.”

Maree Aldam, chief executive of the International Network of Street Papers, of which Street Sense is a member, is thrilled to see the paper’s progress this past year.

“To be more than a year into a global pandemic – that has shaken the foundations of society and placed many hurdles in front of the street paper movement – and finding growth and progress within our network is a significant achievement,” says Aldam. “Street Sense going weekly is evidence of not only street paper publications’ resilience in the face of adversity, but of their commitment to expansion even in uncertain times, always with the end goal of benefitting people who are homeless, experiencing poverty, or otherwise vulnerable or marginalized.

“It is also a sign of Street Sense’s important – and clearly thriving – role as a news outlet in the already bustling media and political hub of Washington DC. We are constantly impressed with the excellent standard of journalism the Street Sense newsroom produces on a regular basis, especially on subjects that are often under-reported by mainstream outlets. The fact it is a shining example of journalistic standards and value is a source of great pride to our organisation and our entire network of street paper publications.”

Israel Bayer, director of INSP North America, adds: “Street Sense plays such an important role in the street paper movement by providing the world with both quality journalism and giving people on the streets a voice in their community. We are proud of the work Street Sense is doing both in Washington DC and around the globe in the larger street paper movement.

“At a time when the media landscape is being turned upside down by the downsizing of newsrooms, Street Sense going weekly is no small accomplishment. Not to mention, it’s happening during a global pandemic. It’s monumental.

“Nothing about publishing a street paper is easy. Being able to maintain a timely and informative product that engages and educates the public is even harder. Street Sense works tirelessly to bring readers insights and stories that represent the community and world we live. Going weekly is a major victory for both readers and vendors alike.”

Street Sense vendor Patricia on the first day of selling of the new weekly edition. [Credit: Doris Warrell]

The new – and first weekly – edition features articles on vaccine information, housing in DC, and a mural commemorating George Floyd. The poems in the issue showcase the vendor’s real voices and stories.

On Street Sense Media’s Twitter page they have been having a “countdown to weekly” campaign to get their readers and vendors ready. The paper also tweeted that the weekly publication will create a “100 per cent increase in reader’s news, opinion, and art!”.

The Twitter account also links a playlist of videos featuring testimonials from vendors. First, Carlton Johnson shares his experience selling Street Sense and his thoughts on going forward with a weekly publication.

“I’ve been riding with Street Sense for a good number of years,” he says as he walks down the hallway at the paper’s headquarters in the nation’s capital.

“With the paper going weekly, that will be better for the vendors, as well as for the customers. It will put more papers in people’s hands that want to see what is going on with being homeless,” says Johnson.

Street Sense vendor Darlisha on the first day of selling of the new weekly edition. [Credit: Doris Warrell]

Jefferey McNeil is a writer and vendor for Street Sense. He says, “The first week of the paper you can sell it, but after the second week everybody’s already got [it]. It’ll be an opportunity to reach out to new audiences.”

Queenie Featherstone, a vendor and artist, says she is excited about what a weekly paper means for the content. She is happy that the patrons will get even more art, stories, and her personal favorite: the comics.

Vendor and artist Aida Perry tells Street Sense that she looks forward to the increase in income. “I’m hoping it’s going to be very, very successful. I’m going to make sure it’s successful,” she says with great optimism.