Street Newspapers Organize in San Francisco
By Brian Davis
The North American Street Newspaper Association has entered its adolescence on the road to full maturity. In the growth of an organization, in its infancy people, come together for self-preservation or because of mutual interests. In childhood, these organizations develop rules, work out trust issues, and make plans. NASNA has gone through its childhood and now in adolescence is working on ways to accomplish plans. Only one member of our original leadership team of NASNA returned this year, but there is a youthful exuberance to transform NASNA into a movement for social justice in this hemisphere.
Street newspapers from Edmonton to Jacksonville, from Boston to San Diego met in San Francisco for the Sixth Annual NASNA conference at the end of July 2001. Staff, from 32 member papers were represented to participate in this once a year gathering of street newspapers. Two members of street papers from Europe attended this year’s with over 120 people attending the gathering.
San Francisco is a progressive city with draconian policies toward homeless people according to the vendors from Street Sheet, San Francisco’s street newspaper. There were thousands of homeless people on the streets sleeping, waiting, and watching their shopping carts. Chance Martin, Street Sheet editor host for this year’s conference, planned a series of events to unity the membership and confront intolerance in the city by the Bay.
The members gathered with poetry and movies saying hello to old friends and conversing with staff from new member paper. On the first complete of the NASNA conference, the membership has a tradition called the parade of papers. Each paper has one representative introduce all the members that made the trek to the conference and then talk for a couple of minutes about what has happened to the paper over the last year. The membership learned that in Florida, the local municipalities were engaged in a series of assaults on the local street newspaper, Homeless Voice. Staff from Denver Voice talked about attacks and murders of homeless people. The Seattle paper staff reported that they were leading an effort to bring more shelter to the homeless population and they were still supporting the sober living tent city. There were new papers in Los Angeles, Tucson, Kentucky, New Hampshire and St. Louis.
One other tradition features a group of tables with newspapers from around the world for exchange. There were colorful papers from Montreal and photo copied journals from Santa Barbara. There were standard newsprint style papers like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Austin and Dallas as well as glossy magazine style papers from Quebec City and London, England. All these diverse style newspapers with commentaries, editorials, news and features that unity once a year as part of the NASNA conference.
Workshops are one aspects of the conference with civil rights organizing, fundraising, and poetry all part of the days events. There was a workshop on media advocacy provided by the Independent Medial Center, which provides free Internet news from around the world. There were training sessions from vendors of street papers as well as for editor’s who needed to create a business plan. There was one workshop for photojournalists, news writing and one on the Universal living wage.
Ben Bagdikian rallied the troops as the keynote speaker. Bagdikian is the author of the Media Monopoly and In the Midst of Plenty: The Poor In America, and the former dean of graduate school of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. He talker about the national disgrace in our urban centers called homelessness. He complained that no other democracy tolerates this type of treatment of its citizens. The point of his talk was the attack on homelessness and poverty by the media monopolies. He calked about he “cold war fantasy” of Star Wars and how just half of that expenditure could house every homeless person in every major city in America. He said that there was “no excuse for the lack of spending on homelessness in the richest country in the world.”
Bagdikian talked about the alleged “firewall” that is supposed to exist between and advertising aspects of the newspaper and the news and editorial side. He said that the firewall has over the last 10 years of firewall has been constructed of flammable materials. He urged the papers gathered to “show what could be done with journalism.” He asked that hose gather and “shame our national political leadership,” but cautioned against advocating violence. Bagdikian wanted to see a national paper of homeless voices, because our entire population is suffering with a lack of affordable housing according to the professor.
The most somber part of his keynote speech was when the elderly author talked about the changes in homelessness over the last 20 years. He said that his greatest fear is that in the United States we are raising a generation that has always seen homeless people as part of the landscape of downtown. His greatest fear is that the new generation will take for granted homeless people and will stop caring. He said, “Just as we don’t pay attention to lamp posts and fire hydrants, we take homeless people for granted.” He wants this generation to remember that in the 1970’s we did not have nearly the number of homeless people sleeping on the streets.
After the second annual North American vend off was son by a vendor from Cleveland, those attending the conference gathered for a direct action against the San Francisco Chronicle daily newspaper. This is another example of the differences between San Francisco and Cleveland. In Cleveland there are extensive, arcane permit requirements for a demonstration and the police will harass the protesters for straying from the sidewalk, blocking the sidewalk, blocking a doorway, using a bull horn, crossing against a light, walking without a permit and just about anything else to silence free speech. In San Francisco, the police were remarkably restrained and allowed the group to really in front of the daily newspaper’s doors. With one hundred protesters it was impossible not to block the sidewalk and the door.
The other difference between Cleveland protests and those in San Francisco was the relatively small number of police that showed up for the demonstration. In Cleveland there is usually one officer for every two protesters. San Francisco had a reasonably small number of officers for this protest against the Chronicle, which reduces the chances of police rioting.
The San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness organized the protest to call attention to the negative portrayal of homeless people in the media. Only weeks before the conference, the Chronicle editorialized that Mayor Willie Brown should crack down on homelessness in UN Plaza which prompted the Mayor to take out the park benches. The friends of the Coalition made up mock newspapers with headlines like “Fuck the Homeless” satirizing the underlying messages forwarded by the media. The management of the paper offered to meet with the Coalition on the Monday after the demonstration to talk about coverage of homeless people.
The business of the conference was to choose Quebec City as the site of the 2003 conference, vote on a new executive committee and affirm the decisions made over the previous year. Two papers were awarded NASNA awards for most improved paper 2001. Street Roots in Portland Oregon and LaQuete in Quebec City were jointly awarded the certificates for most improved.
The final day of the conference is a planning session for the next year. Priorities outlined by the membership included hiring a staff, collaborating on a poetry book, and deciding on a definition of a street newspaper for NASNA. There was approval of the Universal Living Wage platform and a discussion of a code of ethical conduct for the papers. In the end the papers have put aside their mistrust were developing a common vision for the movement. Now that the braces have come off of NASNA they look to a bright future.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #49 August-September -200