Little is publicly known of the origin of this grassroots/activist newspaper. As recently as July of 2003 the paper was printing monthly with an average circulation of 5000 and a vendor base of between thirty and forty. The paper operated on a budget of only $10000 annually and with an unpaid staff of twelve. According to editor Rocky Neptun, the paper’s main goals were providing a voice for the marginalized and a local forum for political activism.
When we began research on the paper, we were interested in learning how the paper reflected and fit into the local community. We also were interested in better understanding the functioning model the paper utilized in its operation. We posed the following interview questions to Mr. Neptun, twice:
Unfortunately, Mr. Neptun was unreachable both via email and telephone.
We also were interested in the perspectives of other local activist groups, such as www.activistsandiego.org, San Diego Rescue and Interfaith Shelter. However, they too declined to answer the survey questions. One response was received, stating “Andrew, I haven't seen a copy of it in months. They used to mail it to me every month. I don't even know if it is still being published.”
This obviously was most worrisome to us. It was at this point we knew that Street Light was no longer of this world. (We had already been somewhat worried after Timothy Harris mentioned something regarding Neptun’s escape to Mexico).
Instead of being disheartened by this tragic setback in our research, we realized that perhaps Street Light’s apparent failure was reflective of its grassroots model and the community in which it attempted to operate.
According to Real Change founder Timothy Harris, the grassroots model is the most volatile of the street newspaper designs. Grassroots papers lack stability because they are “run by the rules of the street, with the toughest and most ruthless in charge.” On the spectrum of street papers, Street Light represented the extreme of the grassroots model, requiring that at least one third of the board of directors be formerly homeless.
However, unlike the most recognizable grassroots paper, Street Spirit of San Francisco, the content of Street Light was not primarily focused on homeless persons and their issues. On the contrary, it focused on a wide range of left-wing political issues. As Neptun has said, “With no alternative paper in town, we try to be both a community newspaper as well as a voice for the homeless.”
Using the July 2003 issue of Street Light as a general indication of the paper’s content, we estimate that while one sixth of the paper is indeed dedicated to homelessness and vendor expression in the form of an interview, the vast majority of the paper’s stories, occupying approximately three fourths of the publication, relate to other political issues with an extreme leftist agenda. The remaining twelfth of the paper is filled by an advertisement page for groups advocated by the paper such as www.activistsandiego.org and Catholic Worker.
Accepting Daniele Torck’s analysis of the street newspaper movement presented in her article, “Voices of homeless people in street newspapers,” this is unfortunate. One of her only praises of the grassroots model of street newspaper was that the heavy emphasis on homeless issues and expression “could be analyzed as a legitimate and canonical first step toward empowerment,” and Street Light obviously was lacking in this regard.
Using the July 2003 issue of Street Light as a general indication of the paper’s quality, although the paper features color on the front and back pages, an unconcerned consumer would most likely be outraged by the selling price of one dollar. The layout of the paper is far from professional quality, lacking standardized format and clear article division. Spelling errors are numerous. The political pieces featured in the paper are often lacking in basis in fact and nearly all articles make liberal use of the first person and have opinion interjected (both violations of most journalistic standards). An interesting feature of the paper, however, is the page devoted to running fiction exemplified by July’s “Fixing Elections” saga by Neil Bezaire.
Still, again considering Torck’s assessment, this is another unfortunate aspect of the paper. Torck states that street newspapers act as “just another small business to help a few people, solve the conscience of the privileged, and maintain conditions as they currently exist,” and taking into account the success of the Big Issue’s social business model, Street Light fails in this regard because it fails to present potential buyers with a desirable product. Thus, even the dignified exchange between producer and consumer that differentiates street paper purchases from pure charity is lost.
As defined by the Stewart B. McKinney Homelessness Act, the current estimate of homeless is San Diego County is 15,000. Of these, while 8,000 are the traditional urban homeless, 7,000 are categorized as the day laborer/farm worker rural homeless class. The street newspaper inherently is of better benefit to the urban homeless class. Thus Street Light also failed to represent a large portion of the county’s marginalized individuals.
Perhaps, together, these three failings are what ultimately led to the untimely demise of Street Light. With such a large homeless population, however, hopefully a new paper will rise in its stead. Based on our analysis, a more effective paper for the San Diego area would need to have a broader appeal and higher production value, as well as more references and greater outreach to the county’s rural marginalized individuals.