Street Roots balances journalism, homelessness advocacy work

Street Roots, a nonprofit newspaper from Portland, spoke to Indiegraf about taking new digital steps while staying true to the original mission.

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.”

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