According to the Poynter Institute, there has been a 20-year steady decline in newspaper circulation. Daily circulation, which stood at 62.3 million in 1990, fell to 43.4 million in 2010, a decline of 30 percent. This is hardly news. Between a weakening economy and the rise in online publications such as The Huffington Post, newspaper readership is anything but robust.
There is an exception, however. One newspaper, based in Washington, D.C., has seen its circulation rise a whopping 200 percent since 2003, including 6.5 percent just in the last year. In a city where your status and political affiliation are paramount, this paper is the antithesis of those things. Street Sense is sold on the street by homeless people seeking to educate Washington's workforce about the issues associated with homelessness.
At its inception in 2003, Street Sense -- then a monthly publication -- printed 5,000 copies. Today, 16,000 copies of the biweekly paper are distributed, bringing in $60,000 in 2011. Each 16-page issue includes hard news, features, editorials and even fiction about homelessness, poverty and social issues. About half of the paper's content is contributed by people who are homeless, and it is edited by former Washington Post reporter Mary Otto.
Brian Carome, executive director of Street Sense, is proud of the strides the newspaper is making:
"Street Sense bridges two worlds, benefiting both. Middle- and upper-class readers develop relationships with our vendors, all of whom have experienced homelessness and many of whom still live in shelters or outside. Readers generally buy exclusively from one vendor and often will contact the office if they have not seen their vendor for several days. For the vendors, Street Sense provides immediate access to an income-generating activity meant to be a stepping stone out of homelessness."
One of the 222 vendors is 53-year-old Veda, born and raised in the district. After graduating high school, she took a job at the post office where, she admits, she "began hanging out with the wrong crowd and using drugs." She eventually lost her job and ended up in the city's largest homeless shelter. Four years ago, a friend told Veda about Street Sense and she began selling the paper. She says the routine of being a vendor helped structure her life and she began attending meetings of Narcotics Anonymous (NA). She now begins every day with a 5 a.m. NA meeting before selling papers. She lives in a one room apartment and can be found selling Street Sense near Metro Center in Washington.
On average, vendors earn $45 per day, with the most successful selling more than 500 papers per month. Vendors purchase papers from Street Sense for 35 cents a copy and distribute them for a suggested contribution of $1. Many readers contribute considerably more. In my experience, vendors are unfailingly cheerful and polite even when passersby ignore them. I've heard vendors say, "God bless you," or "have a nice day" when I smile and indicate I'm not going to buy a paper.
Not only are they brightening the day of D.C.'s workforce, but some of the vendors are poised to join it. In the past year, 23 vendors obtained employment and at least 12 have improved their housing situations. Twenty-three vendors are currently enrolled in an educational or training program. This is very good news in a city with one of the nation's highest rates of homelessness: some 16,000 will experience homelessness over the course of a year in Washington.
Street Sense belongs to the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA) which has 43 members - 37 in the US and six in Canada. So the next time you see someone selling newspapers in your town, take a moment to consider how much your purchase could mean to you and to the vendor.