contributor-bagsAs much attention as e-newspapers are getting for threatening the livelihood of printed newspapers, there are some areas where selling e-papers just won’t do. One particular case is that of “homeless newspapers,” papers written by and sold by homeless people. NPR’s All Things Considered carried a story on these papers a couple of days ago, and points out an interesting dichotomy: if homeless people do well enough by selling homeless papers to afford homes, should they be entitled to continue selling homeless papers?

Homeless street vendors buy the papers at cost and sell them for $1 each, as an alternative to panhandling. Papers such as Nashville’s The Contributor give the homeless jobs that earn them a little money and help them find a way out of poverty. And some of these papers are doing pretty well; The Contributor sold out of its 75,000-issue print run in November. The NPR report notes that vendors will collectively make almost $1 million this year.

There are some remarkable success stories here. Vendor Cory Paul sells 1,600 copies of the paper per month, making about $3,000 per month including tips, (I wish I made that much in my day job!) This has enabled him to clean himself up and get some decent clothes. But the flip side of this success is that some people who buy the paper have started to get turned off by “homeless” people making more money than they do.

One woman emailed The Contributor last month saying she’d no longer buy the paper because her regular saleswoman got a French manicure. “I don’t feel sorry for them if they can afford luxuries I can’t,” she wrote.

But some homeless paper vendors have felony convictions or insufficient educations to find a job in today’s climate—things that can keep them from being hired for regular jobs. Homeless paper sales may be the only job these vendors can get, even if they make enough money by doing it not to be homeless anymore.

Tim Harris, founder of two high-circulation homeless papers, Spare Change News and Real Change, suggests that homeless papers have to shed their charity image and become more businesslike, so that people will buy it for the content instead of just to help a homeless person.

Even though these papers are sold in printed form, like more traditional newspapers they do tend to have websites as well where at least some content is reposted, And the fact that they can exist at all is a testament to how much easier computers have made even traditional publishing over the last thirty years. Still, whether a “homeless” person who makes enough selling the paper to afford a home can really be called “homeless” is an interesting dilemma.


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