England’s Street Paper Lands in LA

by Paul Murphy

     Extra! Extra! The stakes have risen in the street newspaper game! The Big Issue (TBI), a London-based entertainment magazine which addresses homelessness and related social issues, has established the framework for its first North American publication in Los Angeles. Despite the mutual understanding shared by the members of the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA) not to competitively infringe upon another newspaper’s territory, sources indicate that TBI presses are ready to roll and produce an April publication.

     This development has signaled an alarm throughout some sectors of the NASNA community. An umbrella organization for 30 street newspapers across the U.S. and Canada, some NASNA members are rallying to stop TBI from what they view as the colonizing of the Los Angeles street sheet market. While some NASNA members fear the long-term repercussions of the TBI actions, the most immediate effects, it is agreed, will hit the street newspaper landscape of Los Angeles.

     Currently, the Los Angeles area is home to Making Change, a street newspaper working towards solutions for homelessness and poverty. According to Editor, Jennafer Waggoner, Making Change maintains a 100% people’s based distribution, affording many homeless the opportunity to empower themselves through vending, writing, and editing the paper.

     The Board of Directors overseeing the policies of Making Change has a number of members who are homeless, and the project is produced from the perspectives of the poor and unhoused. Earlier this month, Making Change opened their first downtown office with the support of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness. Waggoner reasons that the heavy competition TBI represents would place her paper at risk. More precisely, Waggoner predicts TBI’s presence in the Los Angeles area, coupled with the European publication’s vast resources, would eliminate Making Change.

     Along with the immediate threat to Making Change, apprehension and distrust toward TBI already exist in some sectors of the NASNA community. Much of these sentiments stem from TBI actions over the last several years where they have tried to gain entry into the New York and San Francisco markets. The feelings towards TBI are so prevalent that on January 8, the NASNA Executive Steering Committee voted unanimously to inform TBI and its founder, John Bird, that their efforts were unwelcome in Los Angeles without negotiations with members of Making Change.

     According to Robert Norse, chair of the Commercialization/Competition Subcommittee of the Executive Steering Committee of NASNA, a movement is underway to take this protest a step further. He points to a concerted effort to determine TBI’s effect on smaller street newspapers in England, Europe, and now, North America. Commented Norse, "The Big Issue’s buzzword use of ‘homeless’ appears to be a convenient means of selling a product not particularly committed to civil rights for the poor, and/or respect for the impact of their publication on homeless papers that struggle to forward homeless issues."

     Many in the NASNA cite fundamental differences between TBI and North American street newspapers in opposing its introduction to Los Angeles. For example, while the vast majority of domestic papers throughout the U.S. and Canada are advocacy based and strive to improve laws and services on behalf of the homeless, TBI is viewed as a corporate entity responsive to advertising and profit/loss statements. Tim Harris, NASNA Chairperson, recently addressed the prevailing sentiment of his organization in a letter to his counterpart at TBI, John Bird.

     Harris wrote, "There are widespread concerns that homeless people do not have a real role in shaping the content or direction of The Big Issue, and are being used, along with the issue of homelessness, to move a product that would be otherwise indistinguishable from the great mass of entertainment magazines. The negative rap on The Big Issue is that it is a multi-national corporation built on the backs of the homeless."

     Harris, recently wrote in a letter to other members of street papers, "TBI has been laying the ground work in LA for quite some time. They have held numerous meetings to garner local support, and came in at the invitation of local community activists."

     In summing up his position he clarified his statement by saying, "My personal belief is that NASNA should not tell people how to run papers. We should not accept members that clearly exploit the homeless, but beyond that, all models should be welcome, and we should stay out of people’s business. We are a resource that offers networking, the sharing of resources, and technical assistance; not a policing authority that arbitrates local conflicts, sets down guidelines for political correctness, and sanctions those who do not meet our approval."

     Previously, TBI attempted to enter the New York City street newspaper market, and reportedly tried to co-opt Street News, the oldest street newspaper in North America, by offering Street News Editor John "Indio" Washington, a position on its editorial board. Asked how he kept TBI out of New York, Washington commented, "I told him, I told John Bird (founder of TBI) that we could go toe to toe, best two out of three, settle it in the ring and sell it to pay-per-view. He says he used to be a boxer, but he didn’t want any part of it."

     Washington then embarked on an alternative press and media campaign to discredit TBI and its intentions. The result was TBI’s withdrawal from the East Coast and retreat back to Europe, where purportedly, plans were already being drawn to establish a presence in Los Angeles.

    Eric Cimon, Editor of the Montreal-based street newspaper, Journal’Itineraire, recently represented NASNA at the International Street Newspaper Association (ISNA) conference held this past November. While at the London conference, Cimon had the opportunity to meet and speak with John Bird. Cimon raised the issue of resentment felt by some in the North American street news movement towards Bird’s publication due to what are considered TBI’s imperialist tactics in attempting to establish themselves in the U.S. Bird reportedly agreed with Cimon that TBI would hold a dialogue with existing street papers in any North American market they might explore.

     Founded and based in London, TBI has succeeded in establishing themselves throughout the United Kingdom and Europe, as well as in countries such as South Africa and Australia. NASNA sources admit that a respectable percentage of articles in TBI are advocacy related. Tim Harris, after a visit two years ago to TBI’s London offices, has commented that he was impressed with the quality of service TBI offered to vendors and the number of ground-level staff that had been hired from among them.

     Once she was informed of their plan, Waggoner attended a TBI planning meeting where she addressed the TBI staff with her concern over the lack of communication with her or anyone else representing Making Change. Waggoner reports she was told by TBI representatives that if small newspapers were afraid of TBI, they should improve their product to be competitive.

     According to Waggoner, the TBI representatives had no apologies about moving into Los Angeles, and offered their patronage, suggesting they could print Making Change stories, advise Waggoner on how to graphically spruce-up her paper, and lastly, allow her to advertise in TBI-LA. Waggoner reportedly went on record as telling the TBI representatives that their concessions would in no way make up for TBI’s strong-arming its way into U.S. markets.

     In his letter to TBI founder Bird, NASNA chair Harris wrote, "There is a strong concern that TBI, with its comparatively vast resources, will start in Los Angeles and then rapidly spread throughout North America. It is feared that if this happens, the poor will no longer be the dominant voice in the street newspaper movement. It is also feared that smaller papers will be unable to compete with the TBI juggernaut, and that our movement will grow to be more homogenized."

     Harris said in a follow up letter to the members of street newspapers, "TBI and Making Change should both negotiate in good faith to work out an agreement that respects each publication’s right to exist in LA. The Big Issue should be welcomed into NASNA as a colleague that publishes a widely-respected street newspaper."

     If recent events are any indication, Harris’ reservations on behalf of NASNA may have been realized. Reportedly, TBI is lobbying for a receptive political atmosphere in the Los Angeles area. In a curious move, both the Santa Monica and Los Angeles City Councils recently changed their position in regards to license fees for selling or distributing street literature. A political sleight of hand that compromises freedom of speech, this licensing movement can be traced to Cleveland, Ohio, where city government requires vendors of street literature to obtain a city issued license.

     Consistent with what NASNA members and activists view as the anti-poor and anti-homeless legislative climate across the country today, municipalities throughout the U.S. have adopted this licensing fee as a way to discourage the sale of street newspapers.

     The practice is being challenged as this article goes to press. In Southern California, the about face by both the Santa Monica and Los Angeles City Councils has raised eyebrows. According to Norse, repeated efforts by a number of organizations to sway the opinions of the councils were unsuccessful. With TBI looming on the horizon, the councils have suddenly reversed their stands.

     At the Alternative Media Network event held in Los Angeles, TBI formally announced its plans to publish a Los Angeles based periodical. According to Waggoner’s sources, TBI-LA plans to run a cover story titled, "Coming Up from the Streets..." The feature and related articles will address the issue of homelessness in the Los Angeles area.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published 1998 Issue 25