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Regional Interests

Longtime Street Roots editor looks back on 18 years at the paper

Joanne Zuhl started volunteering for Street Roots 18 years ago and went on to become one of the first paid staff at the newspaper focused on housing and homelessness. Under her leadership, Street Roots has hired more journalists and broadened its scope to include a variety of topics related to economic and social justice. Now, Zuhl is moving on from Street Roots. We talk with her about her time with the newspaper and her hopes for the future.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud, I’m Dave Miller.

Joanne Zuhl started volunteering for Portland’s Street Roots newspaper 18 years ago. She went on to become one of the first paid staff members at the paper, which traditionally focused on housing and homelessness. Street Roots routes expanded under Zuhl’s leadership, with more journalists and a broader scope that includes a variety of topics related to economic and social justice. Zuhl announced recently that she is moving on from Street Roots. She joins us now to talk about her time with the paper and her hopes for its future. Joanne Zuhl, congratulations, and welcome to Think Out Loud.

Joanne Zuhl: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Miller: What first drew you to Street Roots 18 years ago?

Zuhl: Yeah, I didn’t know anything about street papers or the street paper movement. I had moved here in 2002 and saw a copy of the paper, and started doing a little research about it. And what really struck me was this global movement of street papers. I was fascinated. There’s this whole international network of street papers around the world, with more than 100 publications altogether these days. There was also the former North American Street Newspaper Association. All of them are built on the same model of a paper magazine that’s sold by people experiencing homelessness or poverty. And these papers are wildly diverse in what they cover and what they look like. Some are glossier, some are just more meat and potatoes like Street Roots. That global network and that movement towards using journalism to address poverty and address homelessness was fascinating to me, and I think Street Roots has certainly singled ourselves out for our commitment to our journalism in the North American movement. So it’s been a big part of what we do, and I’m very proud of that.

Miller: What was the paper like back then?

Zuhl: It was wonderfully gritty. I think that’s a great word for it. And it probably should have been, I think it was perfect for work for its times. It reflected decades of neglect that people on the streets felt, that there was this lack of understanding from the wider community of what was happening in their lives and how people were impacted by livability policies or camp sweeps that didn’t have the benefit of the regulations like they have today, notices and such. The content really responded to this kind of detached, derogatory opinion of the streets and poverty.

That’s where it was when I started. It was all volunteer. It was a matter of getting a paper out, ideally once a month, and I’m not sure we quite always met that goal, but that’s what we always sought to achieve, as money was available. So, it was much different when I started.

Miller: Meanwhile, Street Roots has grown. You’re saying the hope was it would be once a month, it wasn’t always like that. Now it’s every week. You’ve grown, you grew at a time when many local newspapers, especially city dailies, but also alt weeklies, have shrunken, or many of them have shut down entirely. How do you explain that growth?

Zuhl: Well, we were very small, so we had a lot of growth ahead of us. But also, from my perspective, from Israel Bayer, who was the first executive director coming on as paid staff, what we really sought to do is gel this organization, and push our content to include more news stories. While he worked on getting more community support and more activism, I was working on the newspaper side. It paid off slowly but gradually, and people noticed that. We started moving away from being kind of a newsletter for the streets to become something that was much more accessible to a larger readership, so that you had housed people really interested in what we’re writing about because we were bringing this different voice in these different perspectives to the readers.

And at the same time, as I think our newspaper got a little more credibility and more cachet, we got more vendors. We have more people coming in interested in really seeing how they can use this vendor program and selling the newspaper as a flexible income. So all of that together, I think, became pretty popular for the community, who I think like to see that kind of interaction, and to see the newspaper on the streets, and want to work with their community and make everything better. They are more than just people who cut a check and send it into the mail, and that’s not to knock that at all. Our readers and our consumers were talking with our vendors, they were developing relationships Slowly and gradually we got more readers.

When we went weekly in 2015, of course, a lot had to happen. We brought on Emily Green as our first staff reporter. We brought on Monica Kwasnik as a copy editor/designer/digital guru person. So our staff was 2.5. That’s small, for editorial anyway. But with all of that, more readers, more vendors came in, and as a weekly paper, it became a much more viable income. So there’s multiple prongs of movement forward. Pre-pandemic, we were selling about 10,000 papers every week. Definitely a massive growth, and I think there’s still a lot of room to grow ahead of us.

Miller: What success means for your paper, it’s so astoundingly different than what it would mean for a corporate owned paper. I mean the more people who want to buy issues to, say, read some particular story in Street Roots, it means the more money that people experiencing homelessness, that vendors can put in their pockets, as opposed to meeting a click quota for a corporate home office of the corporate owners of a local newspaper. How much did you think about that when you were working? What the stories or what the sales of a particular issue would actually mean for vendors?

Zuhl: Well, it was always there because the vendors are right there in the office with us, right? We’re not on the 30th floor somewhere, We’re right there with our vendors and we talk to them each week. So we know what’s important to them and what sells, and it’s often not what you think would be popular. There’s multiple tight ropes to walk with that, as far as the image of what you want on the cover of stories that are vital for people who are in poverty or experiencing homelessness, but also to be that person standing on the corner holding that cover photo and holding that newspaper. So there’s so many emotions. It’s a very charged product.

For those who don’t know, the vendors buy the paper for 25¢, and they sell it for $1. We’ve always kept that balance of payment and income, earning 75¢ off of each sale of paper. But there’s a lot more that happens with that transaction. There’s a conversation, there’s a sense of empowerment, there’s earning their own money, there’s a sense of community. I just always felt that it’s a really powerful interaction when you sell the paper, and with that comes a great deal of responsibility, right? We hear back from our vendors when they say “readers weren’t happy about this” or “they they want to see more of this” or “they like this story” or “the person we interviewed in this story bought the paper,” and it just sends people over the moon to have a celebrity, particularly, buy a paper, things like that.

So it’s very tied into the concerns of the vendors. But at the same time, we also know we have to cover these big issues. We’ve got to be hitting upon the whole spider web of issues and policies that are affecting people, all of us of course, but if you’re in poverty and homelessness, directly affect you, and can be catastrophic if they go the wrong direction. So, we know these issues have to be covered, and have to be covered in a way that our vendors appreciate, and the readers appreciate that. So there is that common ground of conversation and concern.

Miller: You mentioned a couple times that you still see a lot of room for growth for Street Roots. Where do you see that growth in particular, and more broadly, what do you hope is the future of this paper?

Zuhl: Well, I can be a dreamer, because it’s not on me to do it. So I’ll just dream for what I see for this paper.

I would love to see this paper reach far more corners than it does in this community. And I think it should, I think that’s a kind of a responsibility as journalists to get that out there. That’s a challenge though, because our biggest asset with our vendors is transportation, and the cost of transportation. Getting further out from the city center is really challenging. And then there’s the other side of things, where we want to reach more people; doing so digitally, while we know how to do that, doesn’t put money back in the hands of the vendors. So that’s a bit of a conundrum. I would love to see us continue on growing our circulation, reaching more folks. I’d love to see us become a kind of educator, in a sense, for non-profit and social justice journalism for young writers coming up, for new writers, for people who are really interested in doing something more with their gift to tell stories and to talk with people, to have that kind of a platform, and just be pure in the generation of journalism ahead. Like you said, not to have it go to an international corporation, but to keep that money local, keep that concern and that interest local. I know that sounds really altruistic and everything, but why not? I mean we’re Street Roots, we can do anything we want.

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