Penniless payments: street papers adapt to digital purchase trends

By Brie Ripley

In a world that is becoming increasingly cashless, street papers around the world are starting to adapt to the consumer demand for digitization.

“I think one of the through lines here is that this is hard. I’m also hearing that we should fail faster, to figure out our mistakes, and figure out what works,” said Tim Harris, founder of Seattle’s street paper, Real Change.

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From left to right: Matt Shaw, Hans van Dalfsen, Jill Woelfer and Tim Harris.

Real Change has been a true innovator when it comes to harnessing technology thanks to volunteer developers from Google who helped the street paper launch its new app in April.

Jill Woelfer is the project leader from Google overseeing the continuous maintenance of the app, which allows people to purchase a digital copy of the paper with their phone for ninety-nine cents more than the conventional cash method

It’s also an in-app purchase, which means that payments are linked to a bank account internally, and doesn’t require users to enter their debit or credit card information each time they buy a paper digitally.

After a bit more time dedicated to smoothing the creases within the app, Woelfer and Harris aim to make the technology readily available for other street papers through open source code.

“We’ve been in bug discovery phase,” said Harris.

Matt Shaw, founder of Speak Up Zine in North Carolina and Hans van Dalfsen, Director of Z! in Amsterdam also spoke on the “Cashless Payments” panel alongside Harris and Woelfer.

Shaw detailed Speak Up Zine’s trials and tribulations while exploring digital possibilities starting in early 2012.

Speak Up Zine tried a card reader at first. It was easy to use, a familiar system to many customers, and it enabled vendors to accept tips. But that made it so vendors required a smartphone, and a smartphone needs internet. Customers were also reluctant to swipe their card on a vendor’s phone.

So they decided to look into QR codes.

“We were inspired by South Africa’s SmartBibs and started looking last fall for some sort of QR-based gateway,” said Shaw.

South Africa’s The Big Issue uses SmartBibs — vests that vendors can wear with a front pocket displaying a giant QR code. Speak Up Zine found technology called that uses QR codes. But it quickly became null and void when Snapchat purchased and eradicated any exchange of money within its system.

Shaw said that cashless payments are going to get better as technology gets better.

“I think we are still a couple years away form a really good and seamless payment solution,” he said.

Speak Up Zine is in preparation to try a new kind of QR technology called Benevolent Enabler. They’re optimistic about the potentiality of this digital payment platform because it will allow customers to use their phone camera to capture credit card numbers.

Hans van Dalfsen was approached a couple years ago by a Swedish company that made pin machines to see if his paper, Z!, would be interested in using their technology to digitize their paper sales.

“It started with ten machines,” said van Dalfsen. “One vendor took the machine, went out on the street, and I’ve never seen them again,” he said while laughing.

After a two-month trial period with the pin machines, Dalfsen decided to oust the experiment entirely because it wasn’t profiting for vendors.

“We got a lot of phone calls from people wanting to buy the newspaper saying, ‘Is this safe? Can I trust the vendor is not trying to rip me off?’ We had to explain to the public exactly what was happening, and it’s very complicated. We were wrong all the time, constantly,” said van Dalfsen.

The consumer demand for digitization also comes with a very important caveat: simplicity. While many street papers like Speak Up Zine and Z! are still strategizing optimal solutions for digital payment methods, others like Real Change are finalizing a successful product.

Harris is optimistic that the technology Real Change tapped into will soon be a solution to the global trend of cashless payment methods for INSP.

“We built this with the hopes that it would work for us, and work well, but also with the hopes to share it with other street papers,” said Harris. “There were various decisions along the way that led us to not make it specific to Real Change.”

That kind of generosity is what INSP is founded on, and continues to share with their vendors and readers. There’s much more change on the horizon for street

papers adapting to a digital climate. While readers and supporters of street papers are committed to perpetuating positive change, they may soon no longer be purchasing their papers with actual change.