A corporate makeover threatens to turn StreetWise, Chicago's homeless newspaper, from a forum for local news and homeless advocacy into a watered-down, advertiser-friendly entertainment guide that many believe would undermine the organization's founding principles.

StreetWise was created in 1992 with the mission to "empower men and women who are homeless" and to help them "help themselves through the opportunities to earn a living and gain valuable job skills." The weekly paper's circulation of nearly 25,000 is the result of sales by its 270 vendors throughout Chicago. Vendors--identifiable by their official badges--buy the paper for 35 cents and then sell it on street corners for $1, earning an average of $400 a month. The income helps them buy meals and get off the streets.

The paper has addressed poverty issues by casting a critical eye on, among other

Vendor Trot McCollough sells issues of StreetWise.

things, corporate greed, such as articles criticizing Nike for its use of sweatshop labor. The organization also runs a Work Empowerment Center designed to teach homeless people job and computer skills to help them find employment.

But executive director Anthony Oliver wants to take StreetWise in a different direction. He plans to form corporate partnerships and soften the editorial content because anti- corporate stories could discourage potential investors. In a press sheet promoting his "Socially Responsible Advertising" program, Oliver encourages advertisers to appeal to the "emotional edge" of consumers and use the paper "to publicize your company's philanthropic support of community organizations."

Oliver also plans to hang a video billboard outside of the StreetWise building to run the ads. Some staffers question the financial ethics of embarking on such an expensive new program for an already financially strapped organization. (Oliver could not be reached for comment.)

Associate editor Kari Lydersen (who is a frequent contributor to In These Times) says that Oliver's advertising-driven vision for StreetWise will hurt the very people the organization is there to help: the vendors. "It's symbolic of a general shift away from the newspaper and direct empowerment of vendors," she says. "More and more, vendors are seen only as a sales force."

According to editor Charity Crouse (who also has written for this magazine), Oliver's plan is a "180-degree turn" from what the editorial staff has tried to accomplish in the past two years. "We wanted to focus the paper as a journalistic news source," Crouse says, "to give the vendors a business product to sell, rather than just marketing the image of homelessness. To empower them rather than make them out to be victims."

The future of the vendors isn't the only thing in jeopardy. According to statements operations director Dianne Kenner made at a recent management meeting, Lydersen and commentary editor John Wilson (another In These Times contributor) will be "phased out" for being potential liabilities. Kenner has accused Lydersen and Wilson of "corporate bashing," even though stories she considered potentially libelous were well-documented.

The latest conflict between Oliver and the staff began on January 8, when former Editor-in-Chief Jalyne Strong filed a grievance with the board of directors against Oliver. Four days later, Oliver fired her. Then on February 5, nearly the entire staff sent a letter to the board accusing Oliver of exploitive labor practices, poor management and misappropriation of funds, and asking the Board to investigate. Among the grievances listed are inadequate heating and lighting for cashiers, an inequitable distribution of pay and benefits for entry-level employees, and questionable use of grant money intended for the organization's Work Empowerment Center.

In the following days, Crouse and production chief Allan Gomez were ordered to leave, Lydersen was fired and Wilson told not to come in. Oliver flew in former editor John Ellis from California to put out the paper. But when Ellis realized he could not do so without a staff, Kenner called the "fired" employees and told them to report to work the next morning. They agreed, even though their concerns had yet to be addressed.

According to Wilson, Ellis told the staff that Oliver would have no contact with them and Crouse would have control of the editorial content. But later that night, Oliver replaced a staff-written editorial addressing the conflict with one of his own on an unrelated topic. In a letter to the board, Wilson said that restrictions on editorial autonomy were now worse than ever.

About 100 people gathered outside the StreetWise building on February 13--while a board meeting was taking place inside--to rally in support of the staff. A week later, the board issued a letter of response, citing a lack of communication as the main issue, defending the current management-heavy structure of the organization, and pledging they were working hard to fix the situation.

But Lydersen says the board's response is little more than a "band-aid solution" to fundamental problems: "The broken bathrooms and bad morale are merely symptoms of extensive labor, ethical and financial problems at the paper."

In the wake of the recent turmoil, the board of directors has appointed Kenner as editor-in-chief, despite her lack of experience in journalism. Kenner and Oliver now have final say over the paper's content. Board president Pam McElvaine told Crouse that StreetWise is not a regular newspaper, but a nonprofit organization, so it operates under a different set of rules.

Crouse sees the recent events as all part of the re-emphasis of the organization, and a sad shift away from its mission. "The priority is not the vendor, but the funder. It's no longer about maintaining the self-sufficiency of the individual vendor, but rather appealing to the philanthropic needs of the advertisers."


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