Our Vendors 

Global stories inform hyperlocal reporting

Wed, Feb 13, 2013

My dream since high school was to cover the news in my hometown of Chicago in a way that would be truly real. StreetWise gave me that opportunity and the international street newspaper movement has helped me go deeper with it.

The modern idea of creating a newspaper as an alternative to panhandling started with a New York City street paper that inspired John Bird and Gordon Roddick to start The Big Issue in September 1991 in London. The Big Issue expanded first throughout the British Commonwealth and was then joined by similar papers, in Europe, South America and even in Japan. Now the International Network of Street Papers (INSP) founded in 1994, includes 122 street papers in 40 nations, with coverage of more than 600 cities and towns.

At any one time there are 14,000 vendors of street papers and magazines, or 28,000 in the course of a year. Their earnings amount to $40.8 million annually. Given that many papers publish twice monthly, the INSP’s total circulation is 1.6 million every two weeks, or 27 million over a year.

This kind of readership means the papers can tackle “the big issue,” which is homelessness and poverty. Indeed, at an INSP conference I attended in Melbourne, hosted by the Big Issue Australia, the Glasgow, Scotland-based street newspaper network did embrace a global campaign against poverty.

Sometimes, though, just hearing someone else’s variation of the same experience puts everything in better perspective. For me that moment was reading a story from a German street paper (via the street paper member wire service to which all of us contribute) where a social scientist was discussing how too often people were unable to obtain jobs because they did not speak perfect German.

I thought about all the books on the market in the US for dressing better and managing time or personnel better and I saw how so many people can fall through the cracks if they are not at the top of their game.

In Hoon Park, president of The Big Issue Korea, enlightened me a little more at the Melbourne conference when he explained that his vendors were largely 50-something, white collar men who had lost their jobs in a 1997 recession that stemmed from Korea’s foreign debt. Unable to settle for lesser jobs, the men’s marriages and their overall lives deteriorated. By the time the economy recovered, younger men were replacing them.

I chose a similar story for this edition marking INSP Vendor Week, Feb 4-10 about a Ukrainian engineer who lost his job after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. He took to drinking with friends and he alienated his wife and kids. One day he was arrested as a bystander in a fight and wrongfully imprisoned for burglary. Released six years later, he was divorced and in poor health.

How similar his story was, I thought, to young Chicagoans of color who drop out of school and are not ready for this job market or Chicagoans of any age who are unjustly arrested or unable to find jobs after incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses. Both here and abroad, the loss of a job or a spouse can be compounded with lifestyle mistakes such as substance abuse and then snowball into homelessness when an individual feels overwhelmed and alone. Lack of opportunity is a whole other issue.

Because the vendors must sell this publication on the street, however, we can’t send them out with only sad stories. The street paper’s mix must include a discussion of how to create more equal opportunities and how people triumph over adversity.

All the stories in this edition focus on vendors, because they not only sell the magazines, they enlighten us in ways that foreign correspondence cannot.

There are stories about the Nigerian vendor who found an alternative to serving in the violent militia, a Filipina broom seller who became a confidante of tourists, university professors and a television star and a Brazilian vendor who became a published poet after a youth spent as a cleaning lady.

You will also read essays by StreetWise vendors on what selling a street newspaper means to them. “Street papers are more or less by the people, for the people, concerning the people…We look at the problems as ‘our’ problems and try to find solutions from within our communities,” wrote Andy Allen.

Written by Suzanne Hanney,
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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