Our Vendors 

Street papers look to sustain 20-year movement

Fri, Aug 30, 2013

Hildegard Denninger, managing director of BISS, at the opening night reception in Munich City Hall on the Marienplatz. Photo: Stephanie Dillig

Hildegard Denninger, managing director of BISS, at the opening night reception in Munich City Hall on the Marienplatz. Photo: Stephanie Dillig

Two decades into the international street paper movement, failure is not an option, despite the global downturn and changes in the way readers consume media, from internet to free news websites.

StreetWise marks its 20th anniversary September 26. Meanwhile BISS, the oldest German street paper, celebrated its second decade by hosting the 17th annual International Network of Street Papers (INSP) conference July 29 through Aug 1 in its hometown of Munich. The magazine sells 40,000 copies monthly in 100 locations across the Bavarian capital, which makes it “a walking advertisement for Munich as the city of solidarity,” Vice Mayor Hep Monatzeder said in his welcome to delegates in the city hall on the landmark Marienplatz.

Organized around the theme, “INSPiring street papers in a changing world,” the conference drew a record number of delegates from 122 member newspapers and magazines in 41 countries on six continents. At any one time street papers employ 14,000 vendors, who earn 30 million euros (40.12 million USD) over the course of a year.

Group photo of the delegates of the 2013 International Street Paper Conference in Munich, Germany. Photo: Stephanie Dillig

Group photo of the delegates of the 2013 International Street Paper Conference in Munich, Germany. Photo: Stephanie Dillig

“We are here because our vendors NEED our newspapers,” said Serge Lareault, INSP chairperson and publisher of L’Itineraire in Montreal. “What kind of niche will we have in the next 10 or 20 years?”
Rolf Pfleiderer, director of media research for TNS Infratest, presented a study of street paper readers in 12 German cities that was comparable to what StreetWise has seen: 63 percent of them are highly educated and nearly half (48 percent) purchase the product in order to do good or to support a vendor (31 percent).

How do street papers survive in the digital age?

First of all, ignore the conventional wisdom that switching away from paper can’t be done because of the reader’s personal interaction with the vendor or because of the desire for “karma points,” said Christoph Knorn, vice president of strategy and consulting for the design and technology agency Conrad Caine.

“Shift happens,” Knorn said, because readers seek convenience, much the way record albums went to CDs and then Napster. Last year was the first time digital news consumption surpassed print and the trend will continue. The biggest transition, Knorn said, is a move from one-way communication by journalists to an interactive one with readers.

The New York Times had 450,000 subscribers one year after it introduced a paywall, which also provided exclusive content to paid readers, he said. The key is that the publication targeted its audience with stories relevant to them. The format was also easy-to-read.

“Think ‘paygate,’ not ‘paywall,’ ” he said, and develop the relationship with readers through social media. It is OK to add digital assets step by step rather than all at once. “Your customers are not ready and neither are you,” Knorn said.

Just the same, when combining local, mobile and social apps, “never let reality stop your imagination,” he said.

During a panel on street paper relevance in the 21st century, INSP Secretary Steven Persson, who is also CEO of The Big Issue Australia, said the exchange between vendor and reader on the street is as strong as it has ever been. The Big Issue Australia “has a ban on experts,” said Editor Alan Attwood. “We want real stories from real people, their lives or their problems. The things that resonate with readers are stories about vendors.”

The defining difference in the street paper medium is the dialog between outcasts and the public, the older person who might not otherwise have ever met a heroin addict, said Anlov Mathiesen, CEO and editor in chief of =Norge (Equal Norway). “I never give up the ambitions of good journalism although almost everyone buys it because of the vendor.”

As editor of Seattle’s Real Change, Amy Roe said she does not question the relationship between vendor and engaged reader. “We found during the Occupy Movement there was great demand for unfiltered dialog. We create conversations across economic classes, starting with the vendor.”

Objective journalism is outdated, Roe said. People know what has happened from Twitter. They want to know what to make of it and what will happen next.

“Street papers have their own market,” said Hildegard Denninger, managing director of BISS. “We sell authenticity, closeness to the problem.” News stories, she said, should use a light touch to explain how people got into difficult economic situations, “not like I do with a hammer in my editorials.”
But once you have led readers to a heavy-hitting story, how do you make them drink it?

The Big Issue Australia’s Attwood said that he has been proudest of stories on “the Great Divide,” on disabilities, mental illness, and eating disorders – none of which were top sellers. Just as an experiment, he sent a photographer to the zoo with the directive to shoot a cover animal that would be “as cute as buggers.”

Two baby snow leopards were the result. “Sales went through the roof,” Atwood said.

John Bird was an audience member for this panel although he is editor-in-chief and co-founder (with Gordon Roddick) of The Big Issue in the United Kingdom in 1991. The Big Issue, along with BISS, was a charter member of INSP. Bird said that he had two models for his street paper: Interview magazine, “which had really good interviews with stupid fashion commentary,” and Playboy, which he admitted was “tits and asses,” but also “the best journalism of the ’60s and ’70s about Vietnam.”

Later, during a session on developing editorial content, Bird said that most street paper readers have left-of-center politics: “they are anti-capitalist but they don’t know what to replace it with.”

The Big Issue isn’t going to solve that issue, either, he said. But it does know how to take advantage. When the magazine asked UK Prime Minister David Cameron to be guest editor, it received hate mail after Cameron loaded the issue with Conservative Party stories. But sales also went up five percent.

Street papers have elite readership that the rest of the press world craves, Bird said. Given this advantageous starting point, “we should be leading our readers,” he said.

Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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