By Matt Creamer
Probably the biggest story out of South by Southwest so far is a controversial charitable program that turned some of Austin’s homeless people into living, breathing wireless hotspots. In exchange for helping the ceaseless chatter from SXSW remain ceaseless, participants got a stipend above Texas minimum wage and were allowed to keep donations made by the Wi-Fi users.
The plan, developed by the ad agency skunkworks arm of BBH, caused a backlash, with the central criticism being that the program is dehumanizing. (Here’s a link to the blog post where BBH Labs’ Saneel Radia explains the motivations and strategy. To sample the reaction, here’s Wired’s Tim Carmody with a strong criticism, The Atlantic’s Megan Garber with an intelligent defense, and, from Good magazine, the view from the local homeless shelter.)
Part of the strategic backdrop for BBH’s idea is that street news, the genre of newspapers created and distributed by and for homeless people, needs a digital updating. Wrote BBH’s Mr. Radia: "Like any print publication, these newspapers are under duress from the proliferation of digital media. How often do you see someone ‘buy’ a paper, only to let the homeless individual keep it? This not only prevents the paper from serving as a tool for the individual to avoid begging, but it proves how little value people actually place on the publication itself. Yet the model isn’t inherently broken. It’s simply the output that’s archaic in the smartphone age."
In response, the International Network of Street Newspapers issued a statement that was mildly critical of the program, while announcing that the organization and BBH are "in contact about the possibility of working together to innovate the street paper model."
To dig a bit deeper into the issue, I emailed with Kevin Roberts, editor of One Step Away, the street newspaper in Philadelphia and a unit of the non-profit Resources for Human Development. Since launching in January 2010, One Step Away has grown to a 15,000-to-20,000 circulation monthly with about 40 vendors distributing the newspaper on the street, and it has expanded to Wilmington, Del. Street vendors purchase the newspaper for 25 cents a copy and distribute it for a $1 donation. Typically five to 10 vendors contribute content to each issue as well, everything from artwork and poetry to photography and journalism.
Ad Age: You mentioned you’ve been talking about the "homeless hotspots" issue. What’s your take and the overall take of the people you’ve heard from on the issue?
Kevin Roberts: Our first thought was about the same as everybody who works with people experiencing homelessness, I suspect. We were concerned that BBH was treating people in a way that was dehumanizing. I’m not sure that there is great care for people’s dignity when you have them self-identifying as: "I am a hotspot." But, honestly, I feel like the folks at BBH are well-intentioned. I don’t think they set out to exploit people and strip them of their dignity — although they’re sure getting a lot of criticism in that regard.
We can all support trying to find ways to employ people, to give them a way to earn income and do for themselves in a way the promotes self-sufficiency. I’m not sure this is it. But I appreciate that the folks at BBH are trying — and as long as it creates a conversation about homelessness and people’s dignity and self-respect, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Ad Age: BBH said they decided to "modernize" the street news concept. What do you think of that?
Mr. Roberts: This is the big thing for me — I think BBH doesn’t understand the street-paper concept. It’s not just the act of standing on a street corner handing out a product for some measure of income. It is about advocating for yourself, doing work that has dignity and joining an effort to end homelessness. Many street papers — including One Step Away — are produced at least in part by people experiencing homelessness. That’s a huge part of the equation that seems to be missing, here. The vendor’s ability to say "This is my story, this is my work" has value. The vendor’s ability to say "I am working to help end homelessness" has value. Street vendors are not panhandling; they are attempting to gain income for their work. What work are we rewarding with the hotspot project? Standing there?
Ad Age: What do you make of the observations made by BBH about the street-news business model? I’m thinking of here of the parts about the newspapers being under duress from digital media, the begging, the output being archaic?
Mr. Roberts: No, no, no. This is exactly wrong. The mainstream media is indeed under duress from digital media mainly because they haven’t figured out how to monetize the act of giving your product away for free. And, yeah; hard cheese, that. Street papers are actually doing very well because they maintain the vendor model; that transaction sustains the industry. Mainstream media is getting away from that transaction as fast as they can, which is in large part why the medium is dying.
Do people occasionally give a dollar and not take One Step Away, or walk away and not look at it? Sure. The charity buy is part of the deal. But that is a lot rarer than Saneel seems to think. But if you can get it in [a consumer's] hands, just get them to look at it, you’ve got a chance to be read. And people without question are reading One Step Away and other street papers. Street newspapers are doing real and valuable journalism — One Step Away has broken a number of stories that have been picked up by the mainstream media here — and people do indeed place value on those publications. That street newspapers have resisted the mass suicide of rushing headlong into the smartphone age is a feature, not a bug.
Ad Age: Is the campaign exploitative in your opinion?
[To answer this, Mr. Roberts relayed the question to a couple of his paper's vendor and contributors as they came into pick up copies to sell.]
Lucian, One Step Away vendor: "I wouldn’t do it. I like to see the big picture; one of the things I like about One Step Away is we feel like we’re working toward something. I feel like there’s a goal, and a good cause. I just don’t see what the goal is, here. To me, you’re just turning a human being into a robot. And I don’t want to be a robot."
Erik, One Step Away writer and vendor: "I can see both sides. But I tend to lean toward ‘exploitative.’ Look, I appeared in an ad for One Step Away that ran on a billboard, and someone said to me: ‘That’s exploitative, too.’ I get it. But it’s for a cause. What you’re working toward matters. One Step Away can change people’s lives. We’re working toward ending homelessness. I don’t understand how this ends homelessness." #