Representatives from 17 "street newspapers" are converging in Portland this weekend for their biennial conference. But if you're imagining planes packed with homeless scribes landing in Portland, bringing color to local hotels and banquet halls, don't.
In the world of street newspapers, the homeless don't run the show. Instead, the North American Street Newspaper Association conference, being held this Friday, July 27, through Sunday, July 29, will be attended primarily by about 50 directors and editors paying $150 each.
"We only fly in key staff people," says NASNA president Laura Thompson Osuri. "We don't fly in vendors because of the expense."
Portland vendors of Street Roots (see "New Roots," WW, Aug. 9, 2006) are invited. But Tony Hulk, 49, doubts many of his co-workers will accept the invitation to attend the conference for free at Portland State University.
"They don't have much of a stake in the paper," says Hulk. "Many feel like independent contractors."
Another vendor, Roger Moora, 62, was confused when asked if he would attend the conference. "A conference?" he said Monday. "I haven't heard anything about it."
In 2006, Street Roots' nearly 80 vendors made up to $60 a day by collecting 70 cents of every $1 for each Street Roots they sold. But at the same time, street-paper writers and staff are becoming more professional. "Only 35 percent of our paper's content comes from [people living on] the street," says Israel Bayer, director of Portland-based Street Roots and vice chairman of NASNA.
Gone are the days when Portland's Street Roots was run by volunteers as a collective. Now, it's run as a small business.
In 2003, the paper went from monthly to bimonthly publication and hired a managing editor. Street Roots now sells 7,000 to 10,000 papers every two weeks, or 14,000 to 20,000 a month. (The numbers come from the paper and are not independently audited.) That compares with 12,000 to 14,000 papers once a month in 2003 and just 2,000 papers a month in 1998.
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."