Editor and publisher, Street Newz
Interviewed by Stuart Hertzog
October 22, 2010
- Why did you start Street NewZ, and how did it get going?
- How many people have you got selling it?
- What about the content — who’s writing for you?
- You won an award for Street NewZ — what was that?
- Does it concern you that if you couldn’t do it for any reason, it would stop?
- What would you like to do with Street NewZ that you’re not doing right now?
- It sounds like things are going Ok for you?
- What do think about the state of community media in Victoria?
- How can community media become independently financially supported?
- Would be good for Victoria community media to get together from time to time?
- What is your opinion about the mainstream media in Victoria and generally?
Why did you start Street NewZ, and how did it get going?
I had graduated from UVic in 2004 with a degree in English and a B.Ed. It didn’t look promising with the public school system and I wasn’t really interested in the private school system for philosophical reasons. I had a year-long contract with the Community Council and the year was coming up. At the Council I was encouraged to participate in community events, and I went to one at the Intercultural Association where there was an interesting discussion about the need for alternative media in our communities, for other voices, and there was talk of the old Red Zone, which lasted for a couple of years in the ’90s. Rose Henry and some other folks were part of it, but it had been a couple of years since it disappeared so there was talk in this room about the need for another street paper, and I wondered if I could do that.
So I just started talking to people, Reverend Al (Tysick) and other community people; I talked to my folks, would they pay my rent for a couple of months while I got this going? I was on Unemployment Insurance (UI) at the time, and I actually applied to a federal make-work program that they had going on, (which was) basically if they like your business proposal they’d fund it for a year. I made it past the first level, they loved it, they thought it was brilliant, but somebody decided that it would never work, so they nixed it. So I was on my own looking for funding for the Street NewZ, and really if it wasn’t for just a generous community and my folks, and the fact that I live simply and am happy to do that, it never would have gotten off the ground.
At that time Community Economic Development Corporation of Victoria (CEDCO) was around. It was a co-operative, and they had an office and were interested in nurturing little businesses like myself, little non-profits, little co-operatives. The Victoria Car Share Co-operative was working out of that office at that time. They gave me a desk, a computer and software, and access to a ‘phone, a photocopier and a printer, and said “Go for it!” So I did: the very first one was just a few pages stapled together. I went to a peace rally and talked it up, asked for donations, and managed to cover my printing costs on the photocopier. So I thought I’d try this and researched and found a printer in Vancouver who printed on recycled paper, and we’ve stayed with them ever since. I thought that I’d put out one issue, and if the vendors came along to sell it, then we’ll do another issue. And that’s basically how we’ve been going.
We’re sort of more year-to-year now, and it’s always about whether we get enough funding for the next year. I do doggie-minding to help support my personal financial picture, so I don’t have to take too much from the paper. I get $800/month from the paper itself, plus what I sell to the vendors. They buy it for 50¢ and sell it for whatever they get, and I don’t keep track, I don’t care how much money they get, that’s their own business. I get 50¢ for each paper they sell it and the whole thing pretty much pays for itself, I have to subsidise it a little bit here and there but some months they sell more and I get a little more out of it. Most months I subsidise it, but you know, it’s a wonderful thing, it’s six-and-a-half years later and we’re up to printing 1,800 copies a month. Most of those are sold. There are some subscriptions and some we give away to Our Place, and other places like that.
How many people have you got selling it?
It ebbs and flows. Some people sign on and then they decide it’s not for them, but right now we have a pretty solid team. Some of our people have been with us four or five years, almost since the beginning. John is my Number One guy, I could not do this without him because he’s in charge of distribution. My job is getting the paper printed and making sure it’s delivered on time. The printer delivers the papers right to his apartment and he takes care of all the vendors. He’s wonderful, just amazing. He’s been doing that for over five years. There are eleven vendors right now who are pretty steady, some sell more than others but there’s no pressure, I’m not into that. Some of these people are on disability pensions, and if they feel like going out selling that day, that’s OK, and if they don’t that’s OK too. So some of them are out there every day and some are more laid back, and that’s just fine with us.
What about the content — who’s writing for you?
Well again, I’m grateful for my community activism because the issues of poverty and homelessness are really interconnected with other issues like world peace. If all this money wasn’t being spent on the war in Afghanistan, maybe we’d have more money for social programs. So I call upon people I know in the peace community; or there are people who have been writing for the paper who just found out about the paper and decided to write for it, like Brian Mason for example, who submits a column every month and he’s been doing that for many years. Sometimes I go looking for people and ask if they were at a particular event to do with environmental issues or harm reduction issues, or the Red Tent campaign for example. I’ll just put the word out. Sometimes I’ll lift stories off press releases, or web sites.
I write an article myself every month, and because we’re members of the North America Street Newspaper Association and also an international group, we have access to what other newspapers are publishing. I can go to a web site and look for articles. For example, in October there was an article written by a European women about how homelessness is created in Europe. She works for a multinational corporation and she just got tired of it and she wrote using a pen name about what’s going on inside the corporate world. I thought it was a good article so I put that one on the front page.
We also co-ordinate this North America street news group using telephone conferences. we’ll network that way and discuss ideas for collaborative projects. There’s been two published so far, the most recent one was about the criminalisation of poverty, and then there’s one in the works to do with harm reduction. There’s never any shortage of articles, thanks to the Internet.
You won an award for Street NewZ — what was that?
Yes, that was back in 2004. I suppose we could win more awards. the trick with awards is that you just have to go look for who is giving out awards and apply for them. I don’t spend a lot of time doing that because it’s kind of narcissistic and I’m more interested in the content. That one was issued by the Community Council, and because I had been working there I knew the process. That said, we were honoured to receive their Quality of Life Award, we were one group chosen in recognition of our part in improving the quality of life of people in Victoria.
Does it concern you that if you couldn’t do it for any reason, it would stop?
That’s always a concern. I’m the only editorial person but it’s not just me, there are other people who do things behind the scenes, like get people shirts and hats. I don’t think I’m indispensable, it would be a bit of a learning curve and the paper would take a different shape and form perhaps. but it’s not like I’m doing something miraculous. You got to know how the software works and how to put it together, and be able to work on a schedule and get things done on time and that kind of thing.
We also have a Board of Directors because we’re a non-profit, and I send the proofs to them as it’s reaching completion but before it goes to the printers. I ask them to tell me if there’s anything you see that they don’t like or which could cause us trouble. But I think that my English degree and my life experience have prepared me for this role, and nobody really has complained seriously. People seem really happy with the paper. Any time I do a survey people are happy with the content.
What would you like to do with Street NewZ that you’re not doing right now?
If you would ask the vendors that, they would say that they would like it printed more frequently, like every couple of weeks. We’ve talked about that, but for me personally, my life would be crazy. I would not have any time to relax. I suppose if we were to move in that direction we would need more funding to hire a person who would — I’m not sure there’s another person out there who would do it for $800/month!
So I’m personally happy with the situation. Sometimes I think that “small is beautiful” and change isn’t necessarily a good thing. Right now we’re a pretty well-oiled machine and the months go by pretty quickly and they sell enough to get through the month, and we have a really good relationship with the other street newspapers and with the Hope In Shadows people in Vancouver. It’s a project of the Pivot Legal Society and we sell their calendars. They get a little money, we get a little money, and it raises awareness.
I don’t know anything I’d like to have changed, although I’d like to know that we’ll have another year of funding. I write grant applications for our core funding and we’ve been really lucky with that so far. It’s always a little bit of pressure as we near the end of that. But other than that, I’d just like to know that people are actually reading it rather than just buying it, which is a nice thing to do, and people do that because they want to help the person. I’d like to know they’re thinking about the systemic causes of poverty and how we can change things, rather than putting Band Aids on and building more shelters and that sort of thing.
It sounds like things are going Ok for you?
Oh yes… I mean, I’d like to not have to publish about how awful it is that the social programs are being dismantled and poverty is being created. I wish we could print more creative fiction, but the reality of the world is that this paper is part of the internationally recognised street newspaper movement. It creates employment but beyond that it creates a social movement for really significant change. I have made a vow to live simply, I don’t want to buy a second house in France — I don’t have a first one, anyway! — so it suits my lifestyle and with the wonders of technology I can bring my computer to Qualicum Beach and walk dogs and get paid for that, and keep up woth my work too. So yes, my life is pretty good.
It’s really sad that we watch our brothers and sisters suffering, but I think because we have a great little community with the Street NewZ family, we help each other out. If our people are able to pay rent and buy food they’re able to help their friends in the community too, and participate in the local economy, which helps everybody. It gives people self-confidence. I’ve seen people change for the better over the years that they’re been selling the paper.
What do think about the state of community media in Victoria?
I host a radio program on CFUV called The Winds of Change — I’m a big fan of CFUV. I’d like to see more public affairs programming on that station. I’d like to see a local news production, just local news that we could broadcast on CFUV. But I don’t have time to do that, and there is a nationally-syndicated news program.
I think CFUV is a wonderful broadcast alternative and I think we have some pretty good print alternatives: I really like Focus and Monday, and Common Ground from Vancouver hits on some pretty big issues. Web-based we’ve got the B-Channel, I really respect the work they’re doing; and there’s The Bridge and Pacific Free Press. I think the alternatives are out there. I think Victoria has an amazingly good community alternative independent media, but I’m not sure how much people know about that, I’m not sure people know that it exists. that’s my concern.
As for the community cable, I know that in the beginning when Jack approached Shaw to put on an independent media program, it was like pulling teeth. And I understand that he actually pays to produce ICTV, and doesn’t get much support at all. Jack’s show is great, he’s done a wonderful job, but it’s all talking heads, and you can get a little tired of that after a while. Another idea I talked about with B-Channel is that they have so much footage that if we were to work together, we might be able to produce background material for a current affairs show. Something like a Democracy Now would be great.
How can community media become independently financially supported?
Chris Johnson of B-Channel nailed that one on the head for me. He said that it’s really about shifting the way people think about their relationship with Media. media shouldn’t be just something that you turn on get; media should be something you buy. You find someone that you believe in and you support them — right? So if everybody pays $10/month to the alternative media of their choice… people are going to have to learn to invest in their media.
The other thing is that I spend a lot of time writing grant proposals. There is money out there, and probably Jack could do that too, but if you’re busy writing or editing video and trying to get things on the air and all the rest of it, and you’ve got a job, who has time to research and write grant proposals? But certainly, we could do anything. We have the technology, we have the skill-set, the knowledge, and the experience to produce good content.
I run some ads in Street NewZ but they’re not paid ads, they’re just friends or services that I think need a little boost, that kind of thing. Hemp & Company gave us shirts and hats so we advertise for them. We promote B-Channel, and The Co-operators of course, because they’re our grantor… Tony’s Trailers, he’s just a nice guy, he helps the community so much. None of those are really paid advertising, though.
I think community media should not rely on advertising. I think that’s a real failure of the corporate media, because then you do get an editorial voice in your head reminding you that you don’t want to piss off your advertisers. So the more we can keep the money distinct from the publishing, the better.
That’s why I like the idea that everybody pays $5 bucks, the CFUV model, community-sponsored radio. I don’t have to think about who I’m pissing off, because I’m probably pissing off somebody, but if they don’t want to donate to my show next year, they don’t have to. Other people will because they like what I’m saying. It’s very important that we’re not dependent on one revenue stream, that we’re really community-sponsored.
Would be good for Victoria community media to get together from time to time?
Yes, I would be interested in participating in something like that in Victoria. We do kind of network already, but very informally. If I need photos for the paper, I know that I can ask Peter Rockwell, who also submits photos to the B-Channel. They contacted me the other day to ask if I had any photos for something they were doing, so we kind of do that informally, and certainly at CFUV we have national radio conferences where we get together with the people from Vancouver and Malaspina.
We all have different visions and we all have different ways of going about things. I like diversity and wouldn’t want us ever to have to have like one boss who designates how we’re all going to do things, that wouldn’t interest me. But the idea of just getting together to talk about how we all do things differently, and certainly how we can promote each other. I’m all for promoting each other and getting the information out there.
My only concern with becoming part of any umbrella group would be that I wouldn’t want to be confused with the people who are endorsing window-smashing or other violent action. I’m opposed to that as a tactic. I don’t support it, and I don’t even want to report on it; I think it distracts from the issues. That would be my only concern, to make sure that it’s clear that we are all distinct, and it’s ultimately up to the receiver of the media to make their own opinion.
What is your opinion about the mainstream media in Victoria and generally?
I think that the word “mainstream” is the wrong one to use because I consider that I’m part of the mainstream, that’s where I flow. I don’t watch the corporate media, I only go to the independent media. I feel that for me, that is the mainstream. What you’re referring to is what I call the corporate media, and no, I think they’re doing a horrible job, a terrible job. They’re lying and manipulating and missing out vital information, and distorting other information. I think their days are numbered.
For example, the people whose house I’m staying in right now in Qualicum Beach are retired. They’re happily middle class, happy enough that they can hire someone to look after their dogs when they go away. They watch the corporate news, and we were having a conversation about something and the wife turned to me and said: “It’s just so awful. At night, we watch the news and then I can’t go to bed because I just feel… all those horrible stories…” I replied: “I don’t know why you watch that news because there are so many alternatives.” She responded: “Oh! Tell me where they are!”
Even a Web site listing all of us would be great – which B-Channel does to a certain extent — something that’s really easily searchable for people, that would be really cool — and maybe a little ad that we could all promote each other, we could all put it on our web sites and say “Hey! Do you know about these other people,” or something like that. That would be great.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. You’re doing a great job with Street NewZ and I take my hat off to you and your people. Thanks, Janine! We’ll be in touch.
Thank you for doing this, Stuart