Distinguished panel discuss future of SNS

By Stuart Martin, Sahil Jaidka and Peter McVitie

The Street News Service was the focus of attention for this afternoon’s proceedings.

The SNS was established in 2002 as a regional initiative by the North America Street Paper Association to share content between network affiliated papers. In 2005, it expanded into a global service as a core part of the INSP. Initially, a fortnightly email, it soon became a web based forum with weekly installments of international news. In May 2010, a new website was launched and it has since gone from strength to strength.

Tom Thomson, Managing Editor of the Herald & Times Group, chaired a panel discussion which invited delegates to rediscover the great value of the SNS and look at ways that the service could be improved.

Tom, SNS Honorary Editor, was joined at the table by Angela McCracken, Media lawyer, Levy and McRae; Mike Reilly, co-founder, Globalwriters; Melany Bendix, Editor, The Big Issue South Africa ; and Danielle Batist, SNS Editor. After a few technical difficulties, Douglas McCabe, Media analyst, Enders Analysis also joined the debate via a live telephone link.

Describing it as a “privilege” to be associated with the SNS, Tom outlined the panel’s desire to take a realistic view of how the service could be developed and identified three area’s that they wished to explore further; the SNS in its prime role, as a resource for street papers, as well as a resource for other interested parties, like the general public and other media (via the SNS website). 

In terms of the SNS as a tool for street publications, Melany Bendix highlighted the important role it plays to not just South Africa’s Big Issue, but street papers all over the world. She believes the service not only supplies high-quality and varied content for the publications in both print and online format, but also helps ensure street papers can work within budget by using the free service.

“We find the SNS a very good source. We see a lot of the stories for the website so we have different stories online and in the magazine and that helps attract a different readership,” she said.

“The big thing is also budget as we reach our budget cap very quickly. It is fantastic that we can get stories and pictures from SNS very quickly and it saves us all money.”

Danielle Batist was quick to point out the growing popularity of the website, citing that 89% of INSP members use the service in a variety of ways.

She added, “One editor was up last night frantically typing away when they lost two stories for their paper. Someone said to them: just get a story off the SNS website. That’s a great example of how you can make use of the material.”

“It is a source for all papers, be it in an emergency or just another source to use. For many papers it is a vital resource.”

The debate moved on to the issue of the SNS as a resource for public consumption via the website.

Melany spoke in favour of the SNS remaining free to the public as she strongly believes it allows street papers to reach an international audience, including people who don’t normally read their publications. She feels that by the SNS staying public, perceptions of street newspapers being of low quality and “depressing” could be broken and the idea of international coverage helps them attract new writers.

She said, “Most of us don’t mind the articles being read by the public because we want out stories read by as wide an audience as possible because our stories are really good.

“They carry social messages and raise awareness so it benefits us that they’re read quite widely.

“It enables us to reach readers that we wouldn’t normally reach. The idea that we have a global reach helps us attract new writers as they want their stories read and they want international coverage. I’m very much in favour of it staying open.”

Concerns were raised by Tom of a public migration from print to online and that in doing so, this could threaten the existence of having vendors on the streets.

Douglas McCabe was quick to allay these fears of “cannibalising” sales of hard copies and stated that consumption patterns for this type of online content was relatively small.

Finally, the panel discussed the issue of SNS content being exploited by the mainstream media.

Danielle Batist stated that mainstream media has shown a growing interest  in street papers in the past year. “Whenever we send out our own press releases about various stories they often get picked up by the mainstream media.”

She said, “Over the last year or so we have seen some interest from people who say they have found our website via Twitter or Facebook and they want to use some of our SNS in-house produced articles on their blog or website,” she said.

“It does not happen very often yet, but it is good to discuss the implications of this and the possibilities we might have in terms of raising the street paper profile and possibly access funding.”

Tom reinforced Danielle’s views by confirming mainstream media can help the brand grow.

He said: “You can reach many people through mainstream media as many people are interested in these matters.

“Perhaps a way to go forward would be choose exceptional stories to send to the mainstream media, and attach the SNS and street paper brand to each story.”

In his summary address, Tom insisted that despite learning that some avenues to gain revenue will not be applicable for SNS, the overall brand has enough clout to grow and improve in the future.

He said, “SNS, for street papers, is very good and is well respected, being used more and more. The service needs to be expanded and continuously developed.

Something we could perhaps improve on would be offering more translation, more story editing and improve distribution.

“We have heard it will not make big bucks in terms of paywalls or sales to media and it is not generating huge amounts of traffic – but it is a niche product.”

A question and answer session followed the discussion in which Tom invited delegates to probe panel members further on any of the issues covered.