I bought my first street paper in San Francisco in June of 2000. I was just starting off in journalism at the time. I had already grown tired of the usual fare when it came to news reporting, so that spring I felt a little like Johnny 5 scanning the horizon for input. I wanted anything and everything that was unusual in the way of print and radio media.
The entire interaction interested me at the time. I've always been one of those people who would pull out a buck or two for anybody asking. But the exchange for a paper written mostly by the homeless was a new dimension. I guess it held my interest well enough because nine years later, after several other twists and turns, I became the editor of the Denver VOICE (which isn't written by the homeless, but still benefits them).
At the end of July 2009, some 40 people from 17 states and three Canadian provinces gathered in Denver to discuss the future of street papers. Under the banner of navigating the recession, there was consensus on one thing: street papers are more relevant than ever.
In their modern form, street papers have existed in the U.S. since the end of the 1980s, when cities like New York and San Francisco formed Street News and Street Sheet. Over the past 20 years, the concept has expanded to 19 U.S. cities and about 37 countries, with 102 papers networked globally.
Among these 37 countries, the format of street papers has taken on a huge variety. Some are like mainstream media tabloids or magazines, others have taken a more grassroots approach and are integrated with a local community of activists working to end poverty and homelessness; some are written by and for the homeless, others produced by a staff of professional journalists and writers.
While the format of street papers varies, one core concept is universal: a works program that is designed to empower homeless vendors, build their confidence and provide a means to become self-sufficient. For our part, Denver VOICE staff had not anticipated the degree of empowerment and ownership that our vendors would experience by being part of our vendor program. In the most basic way, our relatively simple work program has allowed vendors to make immediate income and begin to provide for themselves rather than surviving off of charity and public services. Many of our vendors are now taking great pride in both their work and in the Denver VOICE. And vendors now often provide us with suggestions for how we can improve our vendor program to better serve them. By helping them to realize their own ideas, they have been able to improve their own sales and, just as importantly, have increased the level self-confidence that they will carry with them when they look to move on.
In concert with our vendor program, Denver VOICE editorial staff focuses on producing quality journalism and a product that readers will keep coming back for. With virtually no advertising, we are free from at least one aspect of the downfall of print journalism -- falling ad revenue. We focus on under-reported news with a literary style, and it seems like something people are yearning for. We've heard several times from people that they first purchased the paper as a form of charity, to support a vendor, but then after reading it they wanted to keep buying it because it was a good newsmagazine. This gets at the heart of being a successful street paper: combining the direct, personal connection of the vendor program with quality content.
In the past year, the Denver VOICE has won two awards for its vendor program, one of which was for the most improved vendor program in the U.S. and Canada among street papers. We won the annual Mastermind Award for the Literary Arts from Westword, our city's weekly, and have been runner up in seven categories for journalism awards from the International Network of Street Papers and North American Street Newspaper Association.
At a time when states are tightening the belt on human services and unemployment continues to rise, providing critical journalism and jobs to the homeless and marginally employed is paramount.
Our growth over the past year is testament to the success of the program and how much the paper is supported by the Denver community. We've gone from distributing 1,200 papers in August 2007 to distributing close to 17,000 papers per month in 2009. During the first six months of 2009, 548 vendors participated in our vendor program, compared to the 608 vendors who participated the previous year.
As the editor of the Denver VOICE, I'd like to thank Denver for embracing the paper and the project. It's been an immensely rewarding year so far, and I hope our new developments online will help the paper continue to grow. In the beginning of October we will be launching an improved website with original online content that isn't available in the monthly print version, a blog and chat forum, and extended vendor profiles among other things. As a part of this expansion, we will be providing content on Huffington Post as well.
For more news and commentary from Colorado, check out HuffPost's just-launched Denver section.