"We're fighting homelessness by reinventing Street Newspapers", tweeted global ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) enthusiastically last week. But then they explained the details of the ‘reinvention': 4G hotspots in the form of homeless people.
The idea did not go down well with many attendees of the SXSW music and technology conference in Austin, Texas, where the 'charitable experiment' was launched. Within minutes, it triggered a Twitter storm and by the time the global media caught up with the debate, BBH announced the end of the project on its website, saying "this is a test program that was always scheduled to end today."
Although there certainly is reason to question the morality of presenting homeless people as products (vendors wear t-shirts saying 'I am a 4G Hotspot'), an overlooked issue is that the initiative is charity, rather than self-help. BBH launched the Homeless Hotspots project by saying that they are "trying a bit of charitable innovation" by giving free 4G products to homeless vendors to sell them on.
Since the first street paper launched 20 years ago, the model has been based on working, not begging. INSP Executive Director, Lisa Maclean says of the initiative: 'BBH's interest in supporting homeless people is really commendable. But it misses a couple of crucial elements specific to the street paper model. Homeless vendors buy their copies for half the cover price, then sell them on and keep the profits. The buy and sell element is crucial in the process, as it is the transaction that makes the vendor a salesman, not the recipient of a donation".
She continued: "Street papers offer vendors not just an income, but a sense of self-respect and dignity. At the same time, they put a face on homelessness by offering quality, independent journalism."
Recognising the decline in print media, BHH hopes to "modernise the street paper model". Thankfully, street papers worldwide are not suffering from the decline in print sales to the extent mainstream outlets are. INSP research into global street paper circulation in 2010 showed a 10 per cent increase in street paper sales since 2009, and the movement continues to grow.
This of course does not mean that there is no need for innovation. In order to retain audiences and find new readers in the future, street papers, like other print media, need to keep producing quality journalism as well as adapt to technology changes. However, in doing so, they face a unique problem: unlike mainstream press who can sell pure digital access via online payments, it is essential for street papers to retain the vendor transaction where customers buy a physical product from a seller on the street.
INSP will soon launch an innovative project to address this issue: INSP Digital. It enables street vendors to offer their customers two options - print and digital - priced identically. The digital version is sold on a card, each one carrying a unique QR code which can be scanned on compatible devices. Readers can then read their digital edition on their smartphone, tablet or computer.
The launch of the world's first digital street paper pilot is scheduled for July this year in the UK. If successful, the digital model could support many more street papers around the world. With a global street paper readership already in excess of 6 million, the concept has scope to become one of the world's largest paid digital media platforms.
As an umbrella organisation for 122 street papers on six continents, INSP doesn't just help the homeless - it helps the homeless to help themselves. Since 1994, over 200,000 vendors have earned a living and changed their lives through selling street papers. By adapting the street paper model to changing technologies, it aims to provide this opportunity for many more people who will need a hand up in the years to come.
BHH and INSP are now in contact about the possibility of working together to innovate the street paper model. INSP Director Lisa Maclean says: "We have been encouraged by BBH's response to our communication with them about this and look forward to a constructive and positive conversation, moving forward."
To find out more about INSP digital and how you can support this project, please click here.