Competition is routine in the newspaper industry, but Jennafer Waggoner felt she would be an exception. After all, Waggoner is editor of Making Change, a “street paper” written, produced and sold by homeless people in Santa Monica. So it came as a shock when Waggoner learned that The Big Issue, a street paper in England with a circulation of more than 700,000, has set up shop in Santa Monica and is printing its first L.A. edition in April.
Inspired by Street News, a homeless paper in New York, The Big Issue was first published in London in 1991 under the sponsorship of The Body Shop, itself a marketing and philanthropic trendsetter. The idea was to “give homeless people the chance to make an income” by selling papers, and to “campaign on behalf of homeless people.” Yet The Big Issue's unique publishing strategy, and its decision to enter L.A. – where it threatens to squeeze out Making Change – has some activists asking, “Is The Big Issue just about making big bucks off homelessness?”
The criticisms don't faze John Bird, founder of the London Big Issue – he heard them all seven years ago. “We faced similar consternation in the U.K. when we first started. I think it's going to be hard to understand what the hell we're up to. What we're saying is that we're being businesslike in solving the problem of social deterioration.
“We are not producing a homeless paper,” Bird explains. “We're producing a paper sold by homeless people . . . I'm there for homeless people who want some money, not for the people who want to make something.”
To this end, The Big Issue is nothing like the homeless papers in the U.S. Whereas U.S. street sheets are written largely by or about homeless people – and often staffed by homeless people in apprenticeships – The Big Issue is produced by professionals and reserves just a fraction of its pages for such homeless writings. Instead, the paper reads like a glossy alternative weekly, featuring celebrity interviews, local news, arts and culture stories, and calendar listings. The Big Issue also runs advertisements, which account for almost half its annual income.
Similarly, The Big Issue maintains a different relationship with its homeless vendors. Rather than simply give out free copies for homeless people to sell, The Big Issue starts vendors with 10 free copies, and then charges 40 pence for additional copies – the paper sells for one pound, and vendors keep the difference.
“There's a lack of sentimentality in the arrangement,” says John Bird. “They have to look after their money to buy more papers. They don't owe us anything, and we don't owe them anything.”
One final, and critical, difference from most American street sheets is that The Big Issue turns a substantial profit. Some percentage of those proceeds then go to an affiliated charity. “All the post-investment profits go into The Big Issue Foundation,” Bird says. “It spends its money on social support for homeless people. Support in terms of drug and alcohol counseling and housing, and emergency support in terms of getting people off the street, buying them clothes . . . ”
The numbers attest to the success of Bird's formula: The Big Issue has an audited circulation of 170,000 in greater London, a staff of 120, and more than 1,000 registered vendors. In addition, according to Bird, his paper contributed $1.4 million to the foundation last year.
At the same time he was building his paper in London, Bird was working to export the idea to cities throughout the Western world. Editors of similar street papers in Europe, Australia and South Africa credit The Big Issue as a model and Bird as a mentor. Says Bird, “I think of it as a movement.”
Bird's foray into the U.S. has met with considerably more skepticism. As early as 1992, Bird wrote to editors at street papers across the U.S. offering “to advise [them] on setting up street papers and provide a back-up service for those already established.” But in Santa Monica, editor Waggoner of Making Change views Bird as a rival who could put her out of business.
And Waggoner is not alone. “They're not backing up Jennafer at all but, in a very corporate way, taking over her area,” says Paul Bowdin, founder of The Street Sheet, a homeless paper based in San Francisco.
Bowdin derides The Big Issue as a marketing ploy that trivializes the importance of street papers.
“Street newspapers are a way to present to the public a perspective on homelessness and poverty that you're not going to get anywhere else,” explains Bowdin. “If [Bird] wants to make a slick magazine to compete with People and US, let him – but he doesn't need to use poor and homeless people to market his fucking product.”
On a practical level, Bowdin also fears that The Big Issue's unabashedly commercial approach will open the door to licensing of street-newspaper venders. “When you're being this corporate, it really isn't a First Amendment issue anymore,” Bowdin says. “The Big Issue jeopardizes every street newspaper in this country.”
The North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA), which has 40 members in the U.S. and Canada, and the National Coalition on Homelessness, a homeless advocacy group based in Washington D.C., have backed Making Change by taking a position against The Big Issue's entry into Los Angeles.
Criticisms of The Big Issue among U.S. street paper editors are deep and varied, says NASNA chairperson Timothy Harris, who is also the editor of the Seattle street paper Real Change.
“There is a conflict within NASNA about what sort of street newspaper is the best model,” Harris says. “Some believe that it should be small, grassroots and run by homeless people. There are other people who believe that it should have a larger circulation and create more jobs. The Big Issue coming into L.A. has been a lightning rod for a long-running controversy.”
Harris hopes to see Bird “negotiate with Making Change and work out an agreement that . . . protects the right of both papers to exist.”
The American ambivalence toward Bird stems from cultural rather than ideological differences, suggests Eric Cimon, spokesman for L'Itineraire, a street paper modeled after The Big Issue in Montreal, Canada.
“In Europe and even Canada . . . there are more services to help homeless people, [who] are much more a part of the society,” Cimon says. “You don't have that in the States. For example, when I talk about the everyday reality of homelessness in the U.S. to Europeans, they are totally shocked. The NASNA papers developed through community groups and are based on empowerment and giving homeless people a voice. That's not so important for street newspapers in Europe, and so they can operate without real criticism, like companies just trying to get their profit.”
In L.A., Bird plans to publish a first edition of 20,000 copies in April with a staff of five people and two consultants – one of whom is Art Kunkin, founder of the Los Angeles Free Press, L.A.'s first alternative weekly. Bird says that the London Big Issue will cover some of the start-up costs, though most of it will be paid by The Body Shop. He says he's not yet established a charitable foundation, and declined to comment on staff salaries.
He's also taken his time in building bridges to Waggoner and Making Change. Despite months of initial legwork in Santa Monica, Bird didn't contact Waggoner until late January, and then only through the offices of Bob Erlenbusch, director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness.
At this point, Waggoner regards Bird with alarm: “I don't see how we can co-exist when they have more resources, money and a paid staff to go out and get vendors. Basically, they've come in and said, 'You don't know how to help the homeless, so we're going to come in and do it for you.'”
Now Bird says he wants to make certain that the papers co-exist. “If there's one thing I don't want to do, it is see [Waggoner's] work destroyed. Her work is producing a paper that has a voice – it's a self-help project. I will do my damnedest to support her.”