FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, Street Roots was a humble street paper like so many others around the country, coming out just once a month, assembled by a small handful of volunteers, and sold by an even smaller coterie of homeless vendors.
Then the paper helped start Dignity Village. It grew its donations and its journalism, hiring its current director, Israel Bayer, and longtime Managing Editor Joanne Zuhl. In 2003, Street Roots made the move to publishing twice a month—a launch pad for awards, national respect, and devoted public service that includes printing the essential Rose City Resource guide.
Zuhl's shop has since broken stories on nationally important subjects like the Social Security Administration's broken benefits system, before and in spite of the bigger outlets in town. Bayer is a voice on homelessness issues at city hall, a voice that doesn't always tell city hall precisely what it wants to hear. And, over the years, hundreds of vendors have had their lives enriched by selling papers, one by one, for just a buck at a time.
Street Roots is marking its next big milestone next month, when it plans to go weekly after years of planning and months of fundraising. The Mercury caught up with Zuhl and Bayer to see what might change for a paper that's described as "scrappy" and an "underdog," and what might not.
MERCURY: What does it take to even consider doubling your workload—and then keeping it up?
ISRAEL BAYER: We've been planning this for the last three years, trying to be fiscally responsible in a way where we knew we were going to do this, but where we also knew we were going to need some legs to keep it going. We could have said any time, just willy-nilly, that we were going to do this.
JOANNE ZUHL: There's a sense of re-crafting us into a weekly newspaper. But, then, okay. We're not just going to be that. We have this opportunity to look at what we need to build on, what we need to do better, what we need to change.
Was the change driven by concern for vendors? Were they the ones asking?
BAYER: It's everything. The vendor program is at the heart of Street Roots—being able to provide people with income and stability. The vendors have wanted a weekly paper since we went [twice a month].
ZUHL: I don't think we've had a meeting for the past year and a half where they haven't asked when.
BAYER: Seventy percent of sales happen in the first week. It wasn't just the vendors telling us. We could look at the numbers during that second week and see there was a cliff. When you're working with people experiencing poverty, selling Street Roots was stabilizing people's lives in that first week, and that second week, people were scrambling. When you talk about the cycle of a monthly disability check, of a veterans check, that last week of the month can be life changing. You'll see the vendor program grow. It's not only going to support the current vendors, but it's also going to help retention. There'll be more vendors on the streets.
How many vendors are housed vs. homeless?
BAYER: Fifty percent of our vendors are actually experiencing homelessness and caught in a culture of survival. We work with those vendors to connect them to services. We've become, in many ways, experts on the system, based on publishing the Rose City Resource guide. The other half are primarily people living in low-income housing and looking to improve their quality of life.
How will your journalism change?
ZUHL: We're investing in our journalism. We run a pretty lean ship. But we've hired a full-time reporter. We still have a talented group of freelancers. There's a point where people see the journalism and pay attention to the newspaper and they want to get involved. We think it'll be fine to do it every week.
BAYER: We're 16 pages pretty packed full of content. We're not an ad-heavy newspaper. We can concentrate on the things we do well and get rid of the fluff.
Readers look to you now for stories no one else thought to cover, like the Social Security Administration's bungling of disability checks. But you also don't—because of your schedule—get into the blow by blow of following a story. How do you balance that?
ZUHL: We benefit from that vendor pool on the other side of the door. They're living it. They're breathing it. They know what's happening. They're living through Social Security and disability nightmares. That should never be dismissed.
Plus we have good relationships. We're tied in and we talk to people inside city hall, and outside government. We have a good reputation with our journalism. It's not a gotcha situation. We're here to stay.
BAYER: We've become a platform for social justice causes. With our commentary, we're building relationships across issues, with immigrants and refugees, or labor and the environment, or poverty and homelessness. We've built a good reputation of being able to take very sensitive subjects and present them in a way that's professional, so that people trust us.
The vast majority of readers give to Street Roots because of their vendors. But we have a growing group of major donors who give to us simply because of our journalism.
How has your role changed in light of other media outlets' struggles and changes? Is your star bigger?
ZUHL: I don't think we're elevated because other people are declining. We're on solid ground because of what we do. In the early days, the other papers weren't covering these issues. They weren't talking about them in the way we were talking about them.
Now you're reporting on them. The Oregonian has dedicated reporters to some of these issues. We're talking about it, and other people are talking about it, too. We think it's great. Let's have more people talking about it.
BAYER: We pay attention to what the other papers are doing. We never want to be the third wheel. We want people to open up Street Roots and read original content. When we notice you and Aaron [Mesh of Willamette Week] going play by play on homeless stuff or [the O's Brad [Schmidt]'s really digging in on affordable housing, we're not just going to follow that.
You're going to zig, we're going to zag. We're all collectively able to cover more ground. By being weekly, I don't think it's our goal to be a breaking news organization. But I do think there's going to be opportunities where we cover issues differently. We'll be able to drive something from start to finish. Often what happens is we get ahead of something, pop out something in-depth, and then everybody else covers it.
Beyond your journalism, you've become an advocate in Portland because of your commentary. You're invited to city hall to meet and weigh in, and officials seem to court that imprimatur.
BAYER: We're smart enough to understand that politicians use us when it's to their benefit and ignore us when it's not. We're not silly. We're not naïve. It's important to acknowledge that in public, and for them to hear it. They may feel like running one over on us. And we can see the light of day as clear as can be.
You'll see us continue to have healthy relationships with everybody in the community, but we'll probably be a little sharper around driving specific issues. We might be able to take something and hound on it, to the benefit of the community.
City hall also knows you'll call them out if they're being cagey.
BAYER: It's a matter of building genuine relationships. We're never going to put anything in our paper that we wouldn't say face to face. We can be working with the mayor on one thing and criticizing him on another. The world is a complex place.
What will you talk more about?
BAYER: We'll explore more of the human experience, the endurance and resilience of people. We also want to talk about women and family homelessness. We have this institutional knowledge where we might be able to drive a conversation that tweaks something 10 degrees to the left or right that actually creates some change.
What other lessons loom?
BAYER: Everybody's bought in to the moment. It's about the vendors. But it's as much about the readers. We believe in the idea we're a family.
We put together this campaign to go weekly 14 months ago. People have responded overwhelmingly to get us there. But we don't want there to be a collective sense that we're crossing a finish line. Really, we're pushing off from the dock and we're setting sail. And in many ways, we need community support more today than ever before.