Among the more unstable inclinations of the human heart is its desire to give away money to worthy causes. Offered a pretty good reason to stop giving the money, many of us will gladly take it, and Streetwise was forever tarnished as a favored cause of mine in 2001 when I wrote a column that began, “The editor of StreetWise and other staffers went into open rebellion against executive director Anthony Oliver this week.” The rebels, who had my sympathy, as their cause championed the editorial quality of the newspaper, wound up leaving Streetwise, and thereafter I’ve held to the idea that Chicago’s street paper was not what it should and could be, and guarded my wallet accordingly. When I give it’s because a vendor — like the woman outside my local CVS at night — is especially familiar and spunky; and as often as not I tell her to keep the paper and sell it to someone else. I’ve always assumed she likes me for that.
Eight years later, Chicago has just found out that Streetwise is in big trouble. “The current economic slowdown has hit this 16 year old non-profit in the pocketbook like a ton of bricks,” said a Monday news release from the paper’s City Council champion, Alderman Manuel Flores. “The iconic Chicago organization now finds itself at risk of being out on the street.”
By coincidence, Flores’s announcement came the same day the New York Times reported that “newspapers produced and sold by homeless people in dozens of American cities are flourishing even as the deepening recession endangers conventional newspapers.” The economy, said the Times, “has hardly been a windfall [but it’s] heightened interest in their offbeat coverage and driven new vendors to their doors.”
The article focused on street papers in Seattle and Portland, and Suzanne Hanney, editor in chief of StreetWise, told me she knew those papers “and they are very well run and they are very newsworthy. I don’t know if Chicago’s harder to please, harder to impress, or more conservative. It may be that everybody’s crunched in Chicago. When you have more to give, you do.”
Hanney’s been the editor for four years. She wasn’t around in 2001, and Oliver, is long gone. The rebellion is ancient history to her, as it is to me — except that no stain’s more stubborn than the stain on a worthy cause. “Who’s minding that history?” Hanney wondered. “That was a hit to us, but I don’t know whether those same readers are around. The city has turned over a lot. We have younger readers coming in.”
Executive director Bruce Crane, who was on the StreetWise board back then, remembers 2001 as a time when “people wanted their bylines and they wanted to write on what they wanted to write on. Every paper has to have editorial guidelines, and there was classic disagreement about what that should be.” In my view that disagreement was resolved the wrong way — but that’s water long since past the dam. I’m not sure the editorial content ever quite recovered from 2001, but Hanney wasn’t the editor then, Bruce Crane wasn’t the executive director, and they’re right—it’s ancient history. Today’s problem, says Crane, is grants, or the lack thereof: “We used to depend on $120,000 in foundation support,” he said, but “this year’s budget has about $60,000 we’re hoping for, and we figure that may not materialize.”
StreetWise has never received any government funding, he said, but other not-for-profits have, and as that funding had diminished the not-for-profits have turned to the same foundations StreetWise has relied on, foundations whose own endowments have been battered by the recession. “We’d love to get funding through the stimulous package,” Crane told me. “We certainly feel we’re the right kind of agency to get that that kind of help.” Who do you have in Washington? I asked. “[Congressman] Danny Davis has been a wonderful friend for many years,” Crane said.
Like the papers mentioned in the Times article, the economy has brought to StreetWise‘s door many more jobless people seeking to be vendors. “It used to be we’d get eight to ten new vendors a week,” Crane said. “Now its around 20.” But he went on, “For many of them, this is their job. They’re not using it as an intermediary position. We can offer opportunity for people who can’t get jobs elsewhere. People who are felons. Companies won’t hire a three-time felon.”
Crane said StreetWise is a couple months away from the brink, and it raised an alarm now because “it would be irresponsible if we waited until it was too late.” He said he had two things to tell the public. “One. Look at your vendor and realize it’s his livelihood, and he and his family may depend on this. Two. Consider sending some money to StreetWise. Ten bucks goes a long way.”
He said something else that made me wince. “We get this when we talk to the public from time to time. They have the misperception that if they don’t take the magazine they’re helping the vendor. They’re hurting him. It helps the vendor with his dignity by taking the magazine. And we get the incremental circulation — which is what drives ad revenues.”
Alderman Flores announced that he’d set up a meeting of the City Council’s Committee on Human Relations Wednesday morning “to call attention to the financial crisis StreetWise faces.” Flores told me, “If we can bail out large banking institutions with hundreds of billions of dollars, I think we can help out everyday working people who say ‘I’m going to work hard so I can offer my children a living.”