Street Roots balances journalism, homelessness advocacy work

How advocacy and community news can intertwine

Originally part of the international street newspaper movement in the 1990s, Portland’s Street Roots was born in advocacy.

The publication is a nonprofit weekly newspaper intertwined with the lives of people experiencing homelessness and poverty. Founded in 1999, Street Roots centers its content on social and environmental justice issues.

“I think being a newspaper that focuses on inequity, my focus is to ensure that we’re interviewing folks who are most impacted by any given issue,” said K. Rambo, editor in chief of Street Roots.

For example, if the outlet is running a story about homelessness, Rambo said they’re going to ensure they interview someone with that lived experience, a standard practice not always followed by other local outlets.

“There are a lot of stories that are commonly published in the city that talk about homelessness but don’t interview anyone who has lived or is currently living on the streets,” Rambo said.

Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Roots, said there are more opportunities for Street Roots to raise money as a nonprofit. They are funded by grants, sponsorships and individual donors, who “make up the lion-share of the funding” with those donations making up 40% of the general operating budget.

There is a donation link on the Street Roots website that goes into a general fund, driving the newspaper’s largest single funding source. There are also instances of use-restricted funding, Rambo said, usually in the form of journalism grants, which help reduce the editorial impact on the overall budget.

They are also working on their first ever newspaper fundraising drive.

“The drive centers on showcasing some of the important stories published by Street Roots since April 2021 and asks readers to donate in support of our continued work,” they said.

The organization has a general operating budget with certain amounts allocated to different departments, which are mainly staffing costs. Rambo said the newspaper consists of three full-time staff members and a full-time fellowship position. The staff have backgrounds as professional journalists who previously produced work for The Oregonian, the Los Angeles Times and Oregon Public Broadcasting. The majority of the staff also experienced homelessness, including Rambo.

Although the staff is smaller than people may realize, Rambo said they are in a growth phase. Along with donations and seasonal fundraising drives, the newspaper also makes money on traditional advertising and its vendor program.

Each week, about 200 vendors — mostly consisting of people experiencing homelessness and poverty, see profiles here and here — purchase copies of the newspaper for $0.25 and sell the issues back to readers for $1, keeping all the profits and tips. During the course of the year, Street Roots works with 800 vendors, around 75% of which are unhoused.

Street Roots vendor

There are also other employment opportunities for their vendors to become ambassadors, Sand said. Ambassadors can be trained in journalism or get experience working on the nonprofit side of the organization.

“They’re paid to do that and learn skills,” Sand said. “From those ways, we also help people get into other jobs. The organization has all these aspects, but [is] tightly formed around nonprofit media.”

Although the bulk of Street Roots readers are middle-aged and above the poverty line, Rambo said it is common to receive reactions from grateful readers who are experiencing homelessness or poverty who say they have never read a story similar to their own.

“[The] feedback about Street Roots covering those gaps locally,” they said, “that’s a rewarding piece of information to have.”

The National Trust for Local News envisions a new future for community news

The National Trust for Local News is on a mission to keep local news in local hands.

The nonprofit made headlines earlier this year after partnering with the Colorado Sun to acquire 24 family-owned community newspapers in the Denver metro area and creating the Colorado Media Conservancy, which is majority-owned and operated by the Colorado Sun.

The Trust works with communities to catalyze capital, business model transformations and new ownership structures to help local and community news organizations thrive.

“We really feel like these are missing ingredients to that rebuilding (of local news) that makes our work different and critical,” said Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, CEO and Co-Founder of National Trust for Local News.

While the trust officially incorporated in March of this year, Hansen Shapiro and co-founder Marc Hand originally published a concept paper for the trust in October 2020.

Hansen Shapiro, who is also a senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School with a focus on new sustainability practices and public policies to support local news, said there are existing interesting membership models and best practices emerging around audience revenue and engagement. But they identified two pieces missing: socially rich capital and new ownership structures.

“With all the conversation around newspaper deserts and newspapers closing, it became clear to me there were some real issues around who owns news and who has been owning news ⁠— that hasn’t been addressed,” she said.

The National Trust for Local News currently works with two different groups: publishers who need help creating a succession plan, and local partners that care about the future of news in their community but don’t know how to help.

“They want their papers to stay alive,” she said.

As a nonprofit, philanthropy is a crucial part of the trust. Hansen Shapiro said they are supported by national philanthropic organizations as well as funders in the communities the Trust works in. For the Colorado Media Conservancy, she explained that a group of both local and national funders made the acquisition possible.

“In that role, it’s really philanthropic organizations…helping unlock new forms of support for preserving and transforming local news,” she said.

The biggest challenge for the Trust is recognizing where the opportunities are, and what they need to pass on. Publications with collapsed business models who haven’t invested in new technology or growing their audience or new products would take more resources, time and investment, Hansen Shapiro said.

Her biggest piece of advice for publishers is to determine what value they provide. “What do people need that you provide, or could provide?” she asks. Publishers also need to identify who the biggest stakeholders and supporters are in the community.

“All those relationships are critical for long term sustainability,” she said. “The biggest piece is to start building those relationships in any way you can.”

In 2022, The National Trust for Local News will be expanding their work in five states. Hansen Shapiro wants to include stakeholders at the beginning of the process to make it easier to put structure and funding into place.

“We’re just trying to understand what this model looks like so we can scale it cross country,” she said. 

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