Navigating double parked delivery trucks, pedestrians walking in the street with faces glued to screens and deferring to bikers tends to make driving in Cambridge feel a bit like playing a video game. I couldn’t help but smile last week, however, when I had to stop my car in the middle of Mt Auburn street last week. Why? Because a wild turkey was cheerfully ambling down the road.
The absurdity of a turkey holding up traffic in Cambridge is an encouraging sign that targeted interventions to save an endangered species can and do succeed. This fact cheers me when I think about the state of modern media; a landscape where the extinction of small independent papers is a very real threat.
Journalism has changed since 1992, the year that Spare Change News was founded by a group of homeless individuals “seeking to build a bridge between the haves and the have nots”. In 1992, Spare Change printed a newspaper that told a different side of current event stories. Readers were educated about the obstacles to escaping poverty that homeless citizens face.
An eclectic mix of traditional journalistic “just the facts” stories, fiction, poetry and artwork, Spare Change News offers a unique window through which to view Boston, and developed a following that continues until today. The combination of knowing that the purchase price of a newspaper directly benefits the vendor and the often poignant window into how the other half lives makes Spare Change a treasure that is embedded into Cambridge culture.
While few people would dispute the value of Spare Change as it elevates the voices of the disenfranchised, most individuals who purchase Spare Change these days get their media online. The value of the institution far outweighs the market value of the single product of a print newspaper, which is why Spare Change News is somewhat like the shrinking population of wild turkeys in the early twentieth century.
Most people would be sad to see Spare Change close its doors the same way they would be sad if wild turkeys went the way of the dodo bird. Cambridge would be a shade less vibrant, even as compelling reasons to forgo purchasing a product that creates unnecessary paper waste exist. After all- media has moved online, and Spare Change News has a website that provides the same content that the consumer must pay for.
If you are reading this column, you likely purchased a paper from a street vendor, and based on customer surveys, we have learned that it is the human connections formed that provide the greatest value to our readers. Yet none of us can deny an inescapable reality: the single product of a print newspaper had a degree of value in 1992 that no longer exists today.
Curiously, Spare Change News has survived when other weekly, biweekly and monthly papers have gone bankrupt because a business model built around an obsolete product is destined to fail. The kindness of our customers has protected Spare Change the same way that conservation efforts made over the last century are the reason we see wild turkeys in Cambridge today.
Still, Spare Change News faces the unwelcome reality that declining sales due to an aging vendor workforce make it harder to to justify the rising expenses of printing a near obsolete product. A short term fix is the increased cover price of $2. For those of you who have bought papers, thank you. We do not take your kindness for granted.
Even as we reluctantly have raised our cover price from $1 to $2 to put more money in the vendor’s pockets, we recognize that to continue operating with our current business model is to exist on borrowed time.
Spare Change must not allow itself to be complacent in light of the the reality that it subsidized by kindness. Short term, public good has allowed us a luxury most small news outlets did not enjoy: time to rework our business model.
We thank our loyal customers for this grace period, and are determined to use it wisely as we make internal changes that will lead to a sustainable future with products and services that honor marketplace realities.
As a career journalist, I’ve spent many hours pondering the riddle of how to finance quality investigative reporting when quality content no longer commands a profit. I wince at the sensationalist tone of our current presidential race that is defined by sound bites, paranoia and unsubstantiated allegations.
With the advent of social media and the proliferation of uninformed and extremely biased provocative content, consumers of American media are getting what they pay for. The lack of market incentives to produce soundly investigated content has eroded the journalistic ideal of the fourth estate of a free press to serve as the ultimate check on government power.
The longtime maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads” combined with free access to content that the internet provides has led to a rise in headlines crafted to promote the all important clicks that drive advertising dollars over content that informs the consumer in a meaningful fashion.
This dynamic results in an overstimulated but under informed population that is less likely to challenge the mainstream narrative. The natural consequence of our current media climate is the silencing of less prominent voices; not because of outright oppression, but starvation through lack of funding.
This is where the importance of keeping Spare Change News in operation becomes apparent. As the Boston Globe and Boston Herald make deep cuts to survive, investigative work that does not echo the preferences of those who publish content is in short supply.
This has serious implications for our democratic process, which relies on the interaction of an informed public with free press as a means of determining our collective political goals.
As Spare Change reworks its business model, we recognize that the value of community kindness has kept us alive well past our expiration date. At the same time, we perceive that the need for “the other side of the story” has never been more acute.
As one of the few remaining examples of a truly free press, Spare Change and the 120 plus street papers worldwide that make up the International Network of Street Papers provide the public with a different lens to view current events than the increasingly one note version of reality mainstream media provides.
Spare Change is funded in three ways: vendor investment, individual donations, and small grants from private foundations. In order to maintain journalistic integrity, Spare Change does not seek public funds that could be used as leverage to control content. In many ways, our economic model is similar to crowdfunding.
Our challenge is to continue providing a way for our vendors to earn a living as we seek new ways to keep the vision of free press alive. We are excited to announce plans to collaborate with another Cambridge nonprofit, Muckrock, in bringing quality investigative journalism to our audience.
Muck rock Co-founders Michael Morisy and Mitchell Kotler co created a non-profit, collaborative news site in 2010 that brings together journalists, researchers, activists, and regular citizens to request, analyze, and share government documents for the purpose of making politics more transparent and offering voters to elevate their understanding of important social issues.
Combining tools such as expedited Freedom of Information Act requests with our largely freelance reporting base that includes students, volunteers, vendors and other individuals looking to elevate the voices of Boston’s disenfranchised gives Spare Change the chance to redefine alternative journalism.
As we seek to bring you, our readers, this value we also seek your preferences as we tweak our content to offer you more of what you wish to see. Please consider visiting us online to fill out this brief survey. https:// www.surveymonkey.com/r/ SpareChange
With your help, we are committed to keeping free press alive.