INSPiring the future of street papers

By Sam Best

Glasgow-based charity the International Network of Street Papers (INSP) presented its latest innovation, INSP Digital, during its event ‘INSPiring Business Success in the Digital Age’ at Glasgow’s City Chambers last night.

Designed to move with the publishing market, INSP Digital will enable street vendors to now offer their customers two options – print and digital magazines – priced equally. This move aims to keep existing readers whilst expanding into digital format. Asked about the transition into digital media, INSP’s digital project consultant David Craik said that street papers face a particular challenge, as “it’s through that [face-to-face] interaction – and that transaction – that vendors earn their income.”

The Lord Provost at INSP’s event in Glasgow’s City Chambers,
25 April 2012. [Photos: Megan Fitzsimons]

To retain the crucial vendor-buyer contact on the streets, customers wanting to purchase the digital version of their street paper buy a card carrying a unique QR code which can be scanned on compatible devices. Readers can then access their digital street paper through their smartphone, tablet or computer.

The digital scheme will be piloted this summer in Britain and the USA. The first paper to trial the product is The Big Issue in the North in Manchester, followed by StreetWise in Chicago. If a success, the digital technology will be made available to all 122 street papers in the INSP network.

With a global street paper readership already in excess of 6 million, the digital concept has scope to become one of the world’s largest digital media platforms, as well as providing the opportunity for readers to purchase foreign language papers for the first time.

INSP Executive Director Lisa Maclean believes the wide readership of street papers is key to the success of the model, stating that:

INSP’s digital project consultant David Craik explains
 the details to INSP Patron, the Lord Provost of Glasgow.

“The content of street papers is important: homeless vendors aren’t selling fruit, phones or socks, they’re selling news and information. Street papers can challenge public perceptions of poverty and social injustice – with more than 6 million readers globally, they provide a powerful platform for unheard voices.”

John Maxwell Hobbs, Head of Technology at BBC Scotland, and guest speaker at last night’s event, thinks the world is ready for digital street papers: “People are becoming more and more accustomed to reading online or reading on the go. Actually, if you’re buying on the street it’s easier because sometimes you might not want to have to carry this magazine around. [Digital] also has a better chance of being read, and has an advantage in being more ecological.”

John Maxwell Hobbs, Head of Technology at BBC Scotland.

But the biggest advantage, according to Maxwell Hobbs, is that INSP Digital “will increase the readership. It will aid consumer interaction with the media and will engage readers in a different way.”

His view is shared by award-winning investigative journalist Eamonn O’Neill: “The digital version will create and democratise and evangelise the audience, making it wider. It will also make it much more 24-hour, relevant and up to date. INSP Digital will also be much easier to interact with online, through tweeting and blogging.”

“I have no doubt that the INSP initiative of producing both a print version and a digital version will not only help get the message across and give a platform for people who want to write for them, but that one will enhance the other.”

Event MC and journalist Eamonn O’Neill
and Richard Bissland from 999 Design.

Although the move to digital media has been widely used to combat declining print sales, INSP reports that street papers are in fact increasing in circulation, with global figures from 2010 up 10% in just one year. The move to digital therefore is rather an opportunity to broaden the readership.

“It can widen the audience: the QR code idea is something that’s immediately appealing to a younger audience, and it’s something that the younger audience is already comfortable with”, said Jude Kerrigan, Senior Account Director at 999 Design, who was involved in the pro bono rebrand of INSP, launched earlier this month.

Sunday Herald Editor Richard Walker believes that INSP’s latest project shows that it is ahead of the game when it comes to media development: “INSP Digital might be a slow burner, but as people become more in tune with technology it will take over.”


INSP will soon launch an online fundraising campaign on Kickstarter. The money raised through ‘crowdfunding’ could enable the charity to roll out the digital street paper project globally. Watch this space!