Could Street Newspapers Spark the Rebirth of "Real" Journalism?
Israel Bayer fell in love with news while working graveyard shifts at 7-Eleven. Now he's running one of the most influential street newspapers in the country.
Street Roots, Portland’s street newspaper, has a curious tagline: For those who cannot afford free speech.
Does it refer to the homeless people who sell the papers? Or to the gritty content of the paper itself? Speak with its executive director, Israel Bayer, and you'll realize that it’s both…and neither.
Bayer’s small paper—he describes it as a “small train that carries a heavy load”—does more than put a few stray dollars in the pockets of its homeless salespeople. Rather, under his guidance, Street Roots has been slowly but surely breaking major stories. Major stories that have been making real impacts.
Journalism, anyone will agree, is at an all-time low. Yellow Journalism, once an extreme tactic, has become the norm. Fake news abounds. Corruption is rampant, and only a handful of wealthy individuals control the information being distributed to local constituencies nationwide. It’s not that the homeless can’t afford free speech, it’s that none of us can.
The tagline, as strange as it may sound, is a manifesto for a new media regime. The encapsulation of an intriguing idea, that real, local, issue-based journalism may have found its last stand—or its new beginning—on the far flung, forgotten fringe of news that is the street newspaper.
How did you get into this?
I grew up in middle industrial America, Alton, Illinois, a Mississippi River town. I was a lower income individual with a single mom. The community didn't have a lot of opportunity for a fellow like me, and I was basically going nowhere fast. So I got out of town, quit high school and spent several years traveling with the Dead, and getting into trouble.
I was having a lot of fun exploring things, but not a whole lot of opportunity and no ability to see really any future for myself. I moved to Denver on a whim with a friend, and ended up working at a 7-Eleven convenience store, graveyard shifts. I read the magazines in the store all night. I like to say that I started at MAD Magazine and ended up at The New Yorker. Something triggered. I've always loved history and reading, and I've always been into current affairs, but I think it dawned on me that, "Holy shit. I can tell peoples’ stories?? Okay, so how do I do this?"
What did you do next?
Next began another journey throughout my 20s to basically learn the art of journalism. I was a poor kid, I didn't go to college, so I have no formal education. I started stringing for some small newspapers, I volunteered with groups, I basically tried to be a sponge and to marry journalism into my life. Along with that came the discovery of social activism. I was arrested at the WTO protest in Seattle and spent a week in King County Jail.
You were protesting?
I was protesting, but really I was a part of the festive environment. I wanted to save the world, I was young and naïve, but I believe in that period I began to understand the economics of where I came from. We spent seven days in King County Jail during that protest, and there was a rabbi who organized teach-ins every half an hour in the whole cell block. Whatever you knew, how to steal a car, how to make a rocket, whatever it was. Then at night when the lights went out, he told the history of the Jewish people and the Jewish struggle.
Are you Jewish?
No, I'm not, despite the name. But the rabbi had this crazy impact on me, so I walked out of that jail like, "Holy shit. My whole world's changed." I'd always felt lost and like I was just going to be another statistic. I found the street newspaper movement, and then basically fell in love.
What were the beginnings of Street Roots like?
You had poetry, you had screech, you had street art, the design was horrible. It just looked like what people would expect from a homeless newspaper. Basically, the folks selling the newspaper came to us and said, "Look, we love this idea of being able to go out and gather an income, but I hope you know the people are purchasing the newspaper and throwing it in the trash." They wanted to change the way the newspaper was run. So they brought me in to take a different tack. I got the designer who designed the local daily paper here, the Oregonian. He put together a design template for us that was dynamite.
At that time, I think we had three staff. It was bare bones. We just continued to work at it, work at it, and over time started to be able to build capacity, add staff, but the key focus was away from a homeless newspaper into a community social justice newspaper. We stopped covering specifically homelessness and housing, because it felt like we were just beating people over the head with it. You're a person who cares, but you don't want to be berated to feel guilty.
What do you see as the major difference between a street newspaper and a regular newspaper in terms of content?
We're not a tabloid, we don't care who you're having an affair with, we don't care if you're snorting cocaine on Friday night, we don't care about your personal life so much as we care about the fabric of the community and making it a better place for everybody. That's not just the poor homeless, but that's all of us.
"We don't care who you're having an affair with, we don't care if you're snorting cocaine on Friday night, we don't care about your personal life so much as we care about the fabric of the community."
Which stories of yours have had the biggest impacts?
Well, we did a big investigative report on the archdiocese in the Catholic community who was de-funding grassroots poverty organizations, including Street Roots, that had any kind of affiliation with Planned Parenthood. Then, there were 300 people going to be evicted by a housing authority in rural Oregon because of federal logistics, and our managing editor Joanne Zuhl shined a spotlight on that and saved those 300 people from becoming homeless. Then last year our investigative reporter Emily Green did a three-part series where we spent time with forest workers in these horrible, crazy working conditions. We’re hoping the series leads to legislative action this up-and-coming session.
Most people that I know in journalism, me included, believe that it’s dying or dead, at least as far as we traditionally understand it. Do you see street newspapers as a potential spark for a return of “real” journalism?
People are hungry for real journalism. People want it. People want to understand the city they live or the place that they are. I think people appreciate us not being a "gotcha" publication. Again, that doesn't mean we don't expose injustices or dig deep and have hard conversations, but we don't, again, we're not a newspaper that's just out to get people. People appreciate that in today's climate I think.
One of the things I’ve noticed that really undermines “real” journalism is increased sensitivity to certain words. For example, I keep hearing people say “people experiencing homelessness,” instead of "homeless," which sounds a bit strange to me. Is that the right word? And how important is it to stick to using the “right” word?
All these trends shift and change and evolve, so I'm not somebody that's the word police because I think you have to look at people's authentic intentions, even if they're not saying the right things. But I do think in the context of that specifically, when you're thinking about people experiencing it, it's just a temporary experience. It's not as if homelessness defines that person. Again though, I get really turned off by the left and the right that shut down people that don't have the education to come to the table with the right words.
Do you think, then, that PC culture is mostly a waste of time?
No, it doesn't mean that there aren’t long histories of racism or sexism or whatever it is, but in order for us to reach beyond the polarization that our country finds itself in, we have to be able to overcome that. I think that there's a lot of interesting studies right now to say that you make people feel stupid when you mock them, it alienates and isolates them. Right now there’s this badge of honor with masculinity in Middle America and this idea of "we should be proud that we're not them and using big words!" I think that that comes from social isolation of being told you're dumb all the time for using the wrong language.
I'm an optimist, I believe that through evolving and technology and community that we can make the world a better place, but I also think that if we don't pay attention to that social isolation that sooner or later those chickens come home to roost, and we end up creating an environment in which we live in such a polarized place that we can't move anything forward. How do we navigate saving the planet while also mitigating these polarized environments?
"I think that we need to kill the middle of the country with kindness, not fear."
How do we come together though? It seems like you're right. We're so polarized that it's almost like we're at the point of literally breaking into separate countries. How does it ever stop?
I grew up in a union town from the Civil War all the way to the mid-1990s. Factories, we built the bombs that won the Civil War, that won World War One, World War Two, you name it. I mean it was like a Bruce Springsteen song.
You have 150 years of really progressive history where people weren't tied to the progressive values of a progressive movement, they were tied to the idea of having a good job, a home, labor to be able to take care of their family, and a union was a part of all that. In Middle America, we never figured out how to bridge the industrial era and the technological revolution in a way that said, "What are we going to do with, oh, 100 million people that live here?"
That created an environment where, within one generation, in those same places where grandfathers were proud, card-carrying union dudes, and if you weren't union get the fuck out of here, became the Tea Party. Same generation, same people, same bloodlines. Now those environments are the very same environments that are driving this masculine glorification, and they want to be heard. I think for us as progressives, how do we get to a place where a fellow like me or you is willing to go and put the resources, capacity, and energy into knocking on the door of the trailer park with the guy with the pit bull tied up to the chain and the Confederate flag in the front yard? I think that we need to kill the middle of the country with kindness, not fear.
Have you yourself ever been homeless?
I don't like to say that I have. I've lived in different environments where I was couch surfing and not in stable housing, but nothing in the context of having to survive the hell that is homelessness in urban America. Homelessness is a traumatic experience. By the time you hit the streets, it's very easy to just lose yourself.
Sometimes though, and this might be entirely to make myself feel better, but sometimes I see them laying there in the sunshine, and it seems like they want to be there, that their existence is…it's almost like an act of protest. It's like they're dropping out of society and they are relinquishing the responsibility that they had to behave this certain way. Do you ever think that at some weird level homelessness is intentional? Is that just a totally offensive question?
Well, no, it’s not an offensive question. But I've never met anyone in 16 years that wanted to be there. Nobody woke up when they were 10 years old and was like "I want to be homeless." Whatever happened on their journey, trauma, abuse, so many people with disabilities, I think that it's easy once you're on the other side to simply be like, "Fuck it." Like, you could take everyone in Breakout and put them in that environment, and probably half of that room would be ingenuitive enough to figure out how to climb out, some way, somehow. But half of the room doesn't have a safety net. They don't have a family, they don't have anything. Then all of a sudden, the psychological trauma of living on the street, somebody gets raped, somebody gets put in prison, whatever happens in their lives begins a spiraling effect. Then all of a sudden you're like, "Holy shit." Addiction is usually a way to cope with homelessness, not the cause of it.