TRYING TO WRITE A HISTORY OF THE ROLE OF STREET NEWSPAPERS IN THE SOCIAL MOVEMENT TO ALLEVIATE POVERTY AND HOMELESSNESS
to the fourth conference of North American Street Newspapers,
By Norma Fay Green, Ph.D., Journalism Professor, Columbia College Chicago
In the summer of 1996 in Chicago some of you may remember I stood before a room of street newspaper representatives from the United States, Canada and Europe and talked about my preliminary research into the history of street newspapers. I’m happy to report that since then I have gotten to know more of you and the publications you founded and continue to create. Unfortunately, I still did not feel adequately prepared to fulfill Brian Davis’ kind request that I write a mini-history for a NASNA member’s manual this year. That request and my confidence in thinking I could write an overview were a bit premature. But I’ll tell you what I know so far. Here are highlights of my findings.
· The street newspaper movement in the U.S. can be traced at least to the 19th century.
· The earliest street newspapers appeared to have religious sponsorship or inspiration
· The secular street newspaper era began in the 1970s, with explosive growth in 1990s..
That incognito method proved popular with another man. James Eads How, an heir to a St. Louis fortune, chose to live his life as a hobo, riding the rails, sleeping in flophouses and wearing old clothes. Fueled by the Social Gospel Movement that adhered to helping relieve the suffering of the poor, Mr. How founded the International Brotherhood Welfare Association and a publication known as the Hoboes Jungle Scout in 1913. That newspaper evolved into the Hobo News in 1915 which became a monthly and lasted until at least 1929. Hobo News in turn evolved into the Hobo World newspaper. The only existing copies of the monthly publication indicate it was mix of job news, poems, sentimental short stories and lore about the life of hoboes. It was apparently popular with its readers. It encouraged its readers who may also have been its most faithful contributors, to become vendors and sell 50 cent annual subscriptions to the paper, which initially sold for a nickel in single copies.
A 1916 issue of Hobo News noted the role of the newspaper in helping the vendor: “The public will more generously respond to our invitation for help when you offer them something of real merit like the ‘News,’ than for a straight handout. For this very purpose the News was ushered into the journalistic field. It offers you all the profits if you are willing to prove your willingness to help yourself by offering it for sale.”
An article in Hobo
News the following year was addressed specifically to the general, nonhobo
By 1920, the Hobo
News had become radicalized with a more leftist ideology influenced by
Marx, Lenin and the Russian Revolution. The publication ran into trouble
with the postal authorities for distributing what federal government considered
radical material. Its cover proclaimed, “Published monthly in the
Interest of the Causal and migratory Workers--the Hobo Class--the Modern
Journeyman. To enlighten the Public in General and Organized Labor in
Particular on the conditions that his Class is up against and the slumbering
powers it embraces.”
During the 1980s that decade that author Tom Wolfe characterized as the “Me Decade” of greed and narcissism, the gap between “haves and have nots” seemed to increase. And with that chasm rose publications determined to raise public consciousness and perhaps guilt about the issues homelessness in the wealthiest countries of the world. As you know, modern homelessness is attributed to globalization of the economy , deindustrialization, unemployment and dislocation as factors along with a shortage of affordable and adequate housing, the failure of emergency shelters and food banks, the reduction in social programs, and the desinstitutionalization of those with physical and mental disabilities. Publications to address these issues were started by public and private agencies and activists as well as individuals concerned with peace, justice and social welfare.
Street papers of the modern era became a means to publicize the issues surrounding homelessness--a cause--that needed more public support to help change the situation. Activists who honed their political skills during the 1960s and 1970s applied them to creating new media. They had come of age at the time of great social change including the civil rights movement, peace demonstrations, La Raza, poor people’s marches, women’s liberation, the gay rights movement, the ecology movement, the American Indian Movement and international student and worker strikes. Everything deemed to be part of the “Establishment” became suspect, including organized religion. Also, those who were homeless or at risk took notice and decided that they needed to exercise their own voice and not have others speak for them.
Our keynote speaker
and Street News veteran Lee Stringer describes some of that atmosphere
in a recently published collection of his essays, including this one about
his first visit to Street News’ Manhattan distribution center :
Secular street papers began appearing abut 15 years ago, particularly as you all know in the last decade. By the 1980s , the public became aware of more people literally living on the streets. Homeless individuals were impossible for any urbanite to avoid seeing and no one who cared had to look hard to find them in the suburbs and rural areas as well. Activists turned to journalism. While the mainstream press did occassional articles or broadcast stories about the plights, they never went into depth and it was never enough to be of service. It didn’t advocate action on the part of the public and provide useful information to those at risk.
So, emboldened homeless individuals as well as activists and advocates decided to establish alternative media to sustain public attention. The biggest increases in street newspaper growth in North America seemed to come in the mid 1990s. As even members of NASNA do not all list their birthdates in the annual directory, I have no real way of knowing when each of you and your predecessor publications began. (PLEASE TELL ME). Of those I can verify, 1996 and 1997 seemed to mark the most new publications with eight each, with an average of five each in other years of the decade. The mid-decade rise may be attributed, at least in the United States, to public policy changes, namely pending welfare cutbacks as well as technological advances such as relatively inexpensive photocopying and desktop publishing and increased visibility, support and inspiration from new global street newspaper organizations (International street Newspaper Association in 1994, followed by the roots of NASNA two years later).
As you know the formats and content of each street newspaper vary depending on the skills and ideology of the creators as well as the community in which its operates. They range from a single pages of hand written copy and stapled newsletters to tabloid newspapers, multi-colored 30-page magazine to on-line only street zines. They address the many faces of homelessness including Vietnam veterans, “low income single mothers, battered women with children who have fled their homes, workers displaced by economic change, runaway youth and abused youngsters, elderly people with no/low fixed incomes, those who suffer...disabilities, substance abusers, people who are transients as a result of seasonal work, domestic strife, or personal crisis, recent immigrant, refugees, aboriginal people who have migrated to the city in order to find work and to escape problems, ex-prisoners and those recently discharged from detention or detoxification centers or mental hospitals.” Through all these variations, street papers share a common desire to help individuals and tell stories about the experiences
An essay from a subscriber to Boston’s Spare Change seems to sum up an important viewpoint on the broader purpose of the street newspaper in our modern society. The reader could be referring to any of your publications:
society has a tendency to keep us all disconnected, from one another,
that will be its downfall, and ours as well. This economy particularly
disconnects skilled workers from the unemployed and working poor...It
disconnects the ‘have’ from the ‘have nots,” so
that, if one does hurt, few on the other side of the economy may even
be aware of it. Spare Change is a vital and essential communication tool
that helps keep one half of the economy connected to the other half. And
it works in both directions...One of the favorite words among advocates
these days is empowerment. Everybody want s to become ‘empowered’.
Maybe this means different things to different people. Let me suggest
that Spare Change and its vendors are already empowered in a way that
many do not even realize. Every copy of this newspaper, and every article
in the newspaper, is a kind of warrior’s lance, capable of piercing
one of those hermetically sealed bubbles which separate the human race,
if carefully aimed by the right person to the right person ...if we are
to keep humanity connected, it will have to be done one newspaper at a
You should be proud of your common commitment in keeping important concerns before the pubic. The power of print means that these publications can be read, reread, exchanged, continually reinforcing and reintroducing the issues. Meetings such as this connect disparate publications and should make you feel less alone. You are part of a global community fighting to change the status quo and create a new social order. This organization should help reinforce your purpose and progress.
One last plea: I urge
you to collect and keep a complete set of your publications. Be mindful
of your paper’s origins and transformations. Keep the legacy alive
with one set to show the local folk and send another set to the largest
repository of street papers in the world at the State Historical Society
in Madison, Wisconsin. Just think, a century from now, after we’re
all gone, someone may come across these carefully preserved publications
and appreciate how valuable they are in understanding an important social
movement. Thank you..