Senior capstone project asks: Could a street paper supporting the homeless work in Syracuse?

By Emily Kulkus

April 30, 2015

Senior newspaper and online journalism major Nicki Gorny has an intriguing idea.

Could the city of Syracuse join 35 cities nationwide that have a street paper—a low-cost, monthly newspaper that is sold to pedestrians by homeless or low-income vendors?

Her answer: maybe, with a few conditions.

Gorny, studied the street paper concept for her senior capstone project through the honors program at Syracuse University. She examined a handful of street papers in cities across the United States. She paid particular attention to the Groundcover street paper in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as that city is similar in size to Syracuse, with a strong university influence.

According to its mission statement, Groundcover “exists to create opportunity and a voice for low-income people while taking action to end homelessness and poverty.” Street papers often cover social or niche community issues within their pages.

Gorny interviewed several vendors in Ann Arbor who said the street paper was a positive force in their lives. (See her YouTube video of interviews here.) For many, it was much-needed source of income; vendors earned anywhere from $250 to $1,000 a month from sales.

Gorny interviewed a female vendor who said selling the Groundcover wasn’t about the money—it was why she got out of bed in the morning.

For a street paper to succeed, Gorny found that it needs several components working together:

  • Support from an existing nonprofit helps when starting out. Many street papers start under a nonprofit’s direction and then move toward independence after several years.
  • The paper should have a positive relationship with the city it serves to make sure vendors can access customers and readers.
  • The host city needs enough pedestrian traffic to support in-person, sidewalk sales.
  • The model works best when vendors follow a code of conduct, as they are the face of the newspaper and its business.
  • The newspaper should contain quality journalism so that people will pay for it.

After studying the Ann Arbor paper, Gorny then researched how many of these factors fit Syracuse—a city that struggles with poverty and homelessness.

“It’s an intriguing idea that could work in this city,” she says. “I found enthusiasm for the idea but no practical follow-ups actually starting one yet.”

This community, she says, has a strong network of social service agencies that could support a city paper; the city does not require vendors to have a peddling license; and SU students could generate content for the paper. Gorny recommended a street paper in Syracuse could support about 10 vendors since Syracuse has limited pedestrian traffic.

“It’s an intriguing idea that could work in this city,” she says. “I found enthusiasm for the idea but no practical follows on actually starting one yet.”

The biggest challenge to starting a street paper in Syracuse, Gorny says, would be for vendors to differentiate themselves from panhandlers as there are many of the latter and they aren’t very popular among residents.

Proactive marketing and publicity as well as vendors acting professionally could counter the panhandler stigma, she says.

Steve Davis, chair of the newspaper and online journalism department at the Newhouse School, was Gorny’s adviser on the project.

"Nicki really used her journalism experience to full advantage to produce an engaging project,” Davis says. “She was comfortable hitting the streets to interview people who were selling these papers, and she included photos, a video and short profiles of three street vendors. The project really was a nice combination of research and journalistic methods. And it was just interesting as heck, which always helps. Unless you've worked on one of these honors projects with a student, it's hard to appreciate how much time and effort is required of our already-busy students, and in their senior years, too. It's an impressive accomplishment." 

Emily Kulkus '02 is the web content manager at the Newhouse School. Reach her at eakulkus@syr.edu.

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