For those who spend any amount of time in major cities, you’re familiar with this scene:
You’ve waited 10 minutes too long for the train to arrive, and now you’re running late. You finally get to your stop, quicken your pace to a half-walk, though it’s more like a jog or power-walk, and keep checking your cell phone for the time. You walk up the stairs out of the subway station and you hear a familiar sales pitch. “Good morning! Get your (Name of the city) free daily newspaper!” You block it out, as you do most days, even as a newspaper is literally being shoved into your empty hands. Some days, you manage a “No thanks.” Other days, you simply ignore.
It’s similar to how you would react to a homeless man begging for change on the street. Sometimes you tell him you don’t have any change. Often you ignore his pleas, because you’d rather not lie that you don’t have anything to give him. But once in a while, you fork over a dollar.
And some mornings, you get out the door early, the train arrives as you make it to the platform, and you have a couple minutes to spare before needing to get to the office. So you take a free newspaper and open it up while walking to the office. And while the writing is not what you might read in the New York Times, and while the articles may not be investigative pieces acting as government watchdogs, you realize that you kind of like the newspaper.
And then the next day, you’re running late again, and you’re back to the ignore/no thanks routine.
What some don’t realize is that the people begging for you to take papers next to Subway stops and on street corners in the morning are often on the street corners begging for money later that day.
The above scenario describes my morning routine during my time this summer in New York City. But I imagine it’s a situation to which many of you can relate.
There are many homeless empowerment newspapers in the United States and throughout the world. They are not all the same, both in content and in business model. Check out this video if you aren’t familiar with the concept. It’s a short clip about the Street Sense newspaper in Washington, D.C. Try to watch it all the way through, as it really does highlight what these papers do for the homeless.
The papers that are passed out in NYC are free, and their content focuses on much of what is covered in regular newspapers, albeit in a smaller, shallower form. They sell advertisements, so I assume that is how they pay their vendors, rather than through circulation sales like you saw in the Street Sense video. Few would argue the merits of helping the homeless get back on their feet by empowering them with jobs. The question I have is whether there is a lesson to be learned or potential business model to be shaped from the way these free newspapers operate.
The free papers generally are non-profits who operate via grants, donations or government subsidies. This is clearly not the case with commercial newspapers. But think about what the problem is with newspapers, who are folding at an alarming rate and operating with huge losses. When newspapers were at their peak, they had huge print circulation numbers with ridiculously high profit margins. But when the Internet came along, many no longer needed the print version of the day’s news, which may already have been outdated, in their hands. Plus, many don’t have time for the newspaper before they run out the door on their way to work or school.
And because the news online is free, and advertising is far cheaper on the Internet as opposed to in print, newspapers are struggling. But what if cities with downtown areas took a page out of the book of the free daily newspapers?
Take, for instance, the Chicago Sun-Times. If the paper ceased to deliver door-to-door during the week and cut all weekday circulation subscriptions, it would seem crazy. But what if they devoted those resources to hiring the homeless as vendors for their papers, handing out copies of the Sun-Times for free all across the downtown Chicago area. Every day on their way to work, as men and women head to the train or the office, they suddenly have a copy of a reputable Chicago paper. Not only that, but anyone else in the city, from teenagers to tourists, could also grab a free copy of the paper. Pretty soon, downtown Chicago is flooded with copies of the Chicago Sun-Times. And, if the paper wants to really help its image, it can place conveniently-located recycling bins (with advertising space, of course) all across the city for people to dump their papers after they finish with them.
But how is the Sun-Times making money from this if they are cutting their circulation during the week? Suddenly, when a couple million people in the downtown area are reading the hard copy of the newspaper again, advertising rates will spike, providing newspapers with revenue that they haven’t had in years. Not only that, but the Sun-Times will most likely greatly increase circulation among the younger demographic that gave up on newspapers long ago. If people are used to paying for something, and all of a sudden it’s now free, it becomes very hard to turn down.
Of course, there are probably holes in the above argument, and I’m not sure how exactly the numbers would work out as far as profits gained from a presumed increase in advertising sales minus the loss of the weekly circulation revenue. But I would think that the hiring of the homeless as vendors across the metropolitan area would lower operating costs, since there would no longer be a need to pay drivers to deliver newspapers every morning.
Whether the numbers work out or not, I believe that it’s this kind of thinking that could save newspapers. The answer is not forcing people to pay to read online content. That won’t work, and will only further drive people to blogs to get their news.
So the next time you have the chance to take a free newspaper after getting off the train, just give it a look and see if you like it. You might be helping get a man off the streets, or you might be helping save the newspaper industry.
Yes, that last paragraph was directed at myself.