With a Name Like Stringer, He was Born to Write…

by Norma Green

Norma Green is a Columbia College Chicago journalism professor and street newspaper scholar. She is the author of “Chicago Streetwise: Case Study of a Newspaper to Empower the Homeless in the 1990s” in Print Culture in a Diverse America, ed. By James Danky and Wayne Wiegard (University of Illinois Press, 1998). Her chapter, first presented as research-in-progress at NASNA 1996, recently won 1st place research awards from the National Federation of Press Women and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.

Lee Stringer, formerly homeless and formerly a crack addict turned nationally acclaimed author, shared his firsthand observations with NASNA registrants in Cleveland about the rise and fall of New York City’s Street News where he got his writing start.

Street News, begun in the fall of 1989, is considered the catalyst for the global street newspaper movement of the last decade. It inspired dozens of other U.S., Canadian and European street publications. Stringer, currently on a promotional tour for Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street, began at Street News as a vendor and later worked his way up to columnist and then editor.

The Manhattan-based street paper was started by Hutchinson Persons, originally from Elyria, Ohio (PER NYT 5-24-1990) who was a musician, not a journalist. He wrote songs and came to New York in the mod-Eighties. He never intended to start a publication. Stringer said that Persons wanted to create a benefit concert that might promote his own career as well.

“The Eighties was a time of concerts for causes because the Eighties was all about consumption and social activism-Live Aid, Farm Aid. He (Persons) wanted to get his name in lights and create a concert for the homeless. It was to be called “Ending Homelessness and Hunger” and it would help him perhaps become a star in the bargain. CBS Records and talent people wanted to close off Times Square all day for a concert. Admission would be to bring canned goods. There would be flashing numbers in every city on where to donate for people watching this on TV, and numbers on where (needy) people could get food. Malcolm Forbes jumped aboard and gave $250,000. Record labels were interested. Hunger Awareness Moments were filmed with celebrities for distribution in movie theaters and TV videos.”

Stringer observed that once Persons started using celebrities such as Cyndi Lauper in promotional spots, fundraising stopped. “He had no more money and needed between $3-$5 million to cover insurance, clean up and talent. He had spent $80,000 of the $250,000 doing those Moments spots.”

Persons created a newspaper to keep all the corporations informed that had donated money to the stalled Street Aid concert. The catalyst for Street News was persons’ walk through Grand Central, where he saw so many homeless people. “He thought at least he could fulfill the original mission (of the concert) by expanding the newsletter and letting people sell it. It was almost an after-thought.”

Street News debuted on the day of the New York Marathon in (October) 1989. “Timing was perfect. All the press was there, crowds were there. Police, who were ready to beat back the homeless, saw they were all carrying Street News to sell. The (mainstream) media thought it was great. They didn’t take it seriously as competition and knew it wasn’t going to be and advertising force, but it did get a bad reception among social service providers and churches,” said Stringer, who became a vendor with its second issue.

“I got 10 free copies and I sold the paper, not my circumstances. I never panhandled,” explained Stringer, who previously sold cans and bottles collected in Grand Central Station to support his addiction. “Street News vendors were living ratification of humanity contained in brisk commerce. I found I could make $100 in a couple of hours. I sailed along.”

Street News also appeared to glide along as the media darling of Manhattan-at first. It garnered a lot of publicity. The first issues were full of celebrities and sold out quickly. Stringer said that at 250,000 copies per issue, it was close to the New York Post circulation. But there was foreboding with Persons’ avowed philosophy as an Ayn Rand objectivist and a constant staff turnover.

“The press needs fresh meat. Monday’s hero is a heel on Tuesday. Street News was a ripe target to be shot down,” Stringer said.

TV news reporter Chris Wallace came to visit Persons who had had nothing but sweetheart press and had been treated with kid gloves. The subsequent broadcast revealed Persons’ Ayn Rand objectivist philosophy but more importantly, raise questions about accountability for the original money raised and how it was being spent. Wallace produced tax returns for Street Aid Inc. and claimed it was not a social program but a business. Persons kicked him out of his office and all that aired on national television.

In his retelling of the bad press incident, Stringer said, “I’m not trying to paint him as a bad guy but simply as someone who was overwhelmed. Hutchison Persons wanted to be a rock star and was plunged into the limelight as a savior of homelessness.”

After that broadcast, more of the staff rebelled and some launched a rival publication, Crossroads. However, because of the bad press about Street News, it leaked over into public sentiment about the new paper, which was designed as a for-profit publication and failed after a few issues. Stringer recalled a second rival-“corporate sponsored Zow, Wham, Bang, something like that. It had an extensive media campaign and big media blitz but it lasted one issue, I think.” Stringer contributed a column for Crossroads called “Tails from the Rails” and it was called disloyal for writing for the competition, while it lasted…

Stringer said Street News tried to regroup and create a fresh demand by adding crossword puzzles and a weekend section, for instance. “As far as content, it was not considered as a newspaper but as something for homeless people to sell. It never got off the shoot as a real read. A survey (of those New Yorkers who bought it) found that half wanted to talk more about homelessness but they don’t really want to read it.”

Persons didn’t leave Street News immediately but instead fired and hired others.The staff was in constant flux in what Stringer described as “masthead of the month” mentality. “Persons had to micro manage everything. He made vendors sit and listen to an hours-long tape (before they could go out and sell papers).”

The real problem was the tension between the social organization and the newspaper product. Stringer said conflict was inherent between selling newspapers as a legitimate operation and (operating) a newspaper as a charitable organization.

“Persons finally got out of the homeless business. I don’t know what happened to the money. (The office) lights went off, phones went off and there was always people coming to collect (when I was there),” Stringer observed.

Street News was sold to its printer, Sam Chin of Expedi Printing who gave it another three or four years to get out of debt, Stringer said.

By then Stringer was in the Street News editorial office trying to fine-tune the content.

“We finally realized that we needed to build bridges-to be a conduit of dialogue, not one way dialogue. It was less successful to tell people they’re just like you. So we used the street as a beat. Homelessness is a circumstance but people who live on the street notice changes in policy and on the subway, for instance.”

Apparently the new formula of being reader-friendly and of service worked. Stringer noted that Street News writers were difficult to keep around as they kept getting wooed away from other jobs.

But despite its popularity with readers, it never had much advertising and Street News never saw itself as a big business. London, England’s Big Issue, which was originally inspired by Street News, tried to buy it out. That takeover attempt failed as did one from the Ottawa, Ontario-based Outreach Connection.

After a decade with repeated reports of what turned out to be its premature death as early as 1990 and continuing, especially in 1995, Street News has limped along. But Stringer says the end is near. “Street News, (which had) the most pages and (is) the oldest (sic) is dying.”

The veteran vendor and editor explained, “I eventually left because I was a drug addict and because I was more suited to book writing.” He now surveys the landscape of street newspapers from the vantage point of an author traveling around the country promoting the soon-to-be released paperback version of his book that includes recollections of his days at Street News and nights spent sleeping under Grand Central Station.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #37, August-September 1999