Nashville street newspaper faces financial crisis
Sep. 08, 2013
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Nashville street newspaper that rose from a shoestring operation helping the homeless to the biggest-circulation publication of its kind in North America now finds itself seeking a helping hand in hard times. And the staff of The Contributor hopes readers will pitch in with donations to help the paper survive.
Fundraising hasn't kept pace with growth at the paper, an institution of sorts in a city of landmarks like the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame. Now the street paper that has morphed from an all-volunteer effort to a nonprofit with a paid staff helping to turn out 110,000 papers a month says it has just enough money for one more press run.
"Final Issue?" reads the latest headline of The Contributor, which has aided hundreds of poor and homeless since its 2007 start.
Co-founders Tom Wills and Tasha French Lemley hope the thousands who buy the newspaper each month will heed their wake-up call and donate to the nonprofit that produces The Contributor — not just buy a paper off the street.
"Most of our supporters consider buying a paper a donation," Wills said. But actually, most of the $1 price of a copy goes to the vendors, the homeless or formerly homeless who hawk the paper around Nashville and beyond.
Vendors receive 15 free papers the first time they sell and after that, they buy the papers at 25 cents each. The Contributor has a $1 cover price, but most people give vendors $2 and occasionally much more.
While those sales bring in about $300,000 a year to The Contributor and advertisements less than $20,000, the nonprofit needs about twice that amount to stay afloat, Wills said. The paper is hoping to raise $375,000 in donations to break even for the year and put some money aside in a rainy day fund.
Vendor Anita Smith, for one, is confident donors will step up.
"This is a blessed paper," she said, adding she herself has been blessed by its success.
She was living in a domestic violence shelter when she began selling The Contributor in 2009. Hawking the latest issue at a bustling corner near the Vanderbilt University campus recently, Smith smiled and waved at people, stopping to chat with some.
Smith said Lemley and the people she has met selling The Contributor have helped her get her life back together, find counseling and quit drinking. She even met her pastor when she asked him to buy a paper.
"There are too many to name," she said of her benefactors brought on by The Contributor. "They all helped me escape."
After a while she began writing for the paper and was even invited to speak about her experiences at events.
"It gave me a sense of pride, a sense of self-esteem back that I thought I would never get back," she said. "Aside from God almighty, The Contributor changed my life."
The paper, too, has changed rapidly since its inception, going from an all-volunteer structure to a paid staff. It also now has the largest vendor force of any street paper in North America, with between 300 and 400 people selling each issue.
Wills estimates the paper has brought in $7.5 million for 2,000 vendors since the first edition appeared in November 2007. That month 5,000 copies were printed and "maybe 500" sold, Wills said.
The paper grew steadily for years. Then growth exploded in 2010 when The Contributor went from selling fewer than 10,000 papers in January to nearly 120,000 that December. Average sales in 2011 stayed high at more than 110,000 papers a month and dropped only slightly in 2012, when The Contributor increased publication to every two to three weeks.
Many who buy The Contributor do so more to support the vendor than to acquire the product — generally a range of stories on poverty and social issues, but also some poetry, vendor profiles and a whimsical astrology section. Many of the writers are homeless or formerly homeless.
Walking in downtown Nashville on Friday, Mindy Shaffer said hello to her regular vendor, Wayne Walden, who has been selling The Contributor for about two years. She said Walden is the reason she buys the paper.
"He's my favorite," she said, adding she first bought the paper when Walden told her he had a poem in it.
"He's really good," she added.
Wills isn't really sure why The Contributor has had success well beyond many other street papers; the next largest is Real Change in Seattle with a weekly distribution of 16,000 to 22,000.
One reason could be that the vendors of most other papers tend to sell to a pedestrian crowd in urban downtowns.
Nashville has few pedestrians, but many drivers, and vendors regularly park themselves at busy intersections, especially during rush hour. They also travel far into the suburbs to sell papers — even to the surrounding cities.
But with explosive growth, the largely volunteer organization needed to professionalize and hire paid staff. Yet as expenses grew, Wills said the nonprofit was spending more than it was taking in. But not even the hiring of a development director for fundraising helped.
"In early August we realized the time to hit the panic button was at hand, and we needed to be blunt with our readership about our funding needs," Wills said.
Jim LoBianco, with Chicago's StreetWise, said that paper weathered its own financial crisis and nearly shut down five years ago, just as The Contributor was starting up.
StreetWise essentially had a big nest egg that it steadily went through without looking at how it would stay solvent for the long term. LoBianco, who took over the paper immediately after the crisis, said StreetWise saved itself through an emergency appeal for donations. But it still took years to get donations up and expenses down sufficiently.
The Contributor could stay afloat by collecting more from the vendors, but Wills won't do that, noting, "Our mission as a nonprofit is to provide income for vendors to better their lives."
It's obvious from the number of papers sold that The Contributor has broad community support, Wills said. The Contributor just hasn't done a good enough job of letting supporters know what they need, he said.
"We've grown up, and we grew up in a huge hurry. And it takes time to develop a network of donors that you can reach out to and they will respond to you."