Thursday, April 05, 2007

Street Beacon: Second Issue Out Soon

Late last week, we interviewed Matt Ryno (pronounced like the French auto maker Renault) the editor of the Street Beacon, a “community newspaper” for the Near West Side. In spite of the “community” orientation, Ryno and several other Marquette students (organized and recognized by the university as the Urban Initiative) have been the driving force behind the paper.

One key purpose of the paper has been to help homeless people by giving them an opportunity to make some money selling copies.

We have blogged about the paper before, and have been a bit skeptical about the project, not because it lacked journalistic merit, but because we doubted the inherit viability of a community newspaper in an area we didn’t view as any sort of real community, and because of minimal participation of homeless people in the project.

But it seems the project has been more successful than we expected. A second number is slated to come out on April 10.

An article Ryno wrote for the one issue so far (released back in the fall) won an award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Titled “Food stores are still a needed oasis in the New West Side,” it took third place for “in depth reporting.” It reported how the closure of a food store at north 35th Street and Juneau Avenue has left a very large swath of the West Side without a sizable food market.

But Ryno seems less proud of the award than of the fact that a core group of about 10 community activists came together to try to get something done about the situation. They met with representatives of Harley-Davidson (which has a lease on the property, which is owned by Marquette) and discussed the feasibility of putting a new market there.

Harley is now using the property for a parking lot, but according to Tony Shields, Manager of Community Relations for Harley, a feasibility study is underway to evaluate the use of the property, and “all viable options” are on the table.

So the paper has had an impact.


With any new media startup, financing is a potential problem. The second issue of the paper is being financed by a grant of $500 from (a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center), plus proceeds from the sale of the first number of the paper, added to individual donations.

The first issue contained no advertisements, but the staff now includes a Marquette Advertising major, who will be around next year and will be seeking ads. The paper now has in place a media kit and ad pricing, and is working with Business Improvement Districts and at least one additional community paper to sell ads.

What about helping the homeless? Most of the actual neighborhood distribution of the first issue (as opposed to campus distribution) consisted of Ryno driving around and dropping off copies at locations where people might pick them up and read them.

Ryno reports that he has “talked to other street papers,” and is changing the compensation plan for homeless people. The new plan is to pay $7.00 per hour for the first two hours that a seller works. In addition, the paper will now sell for $1.00. Ryno explains that most buyers voluntarily paid $1.00 for the paper the first time around, notwithstanding that the “suggested contribution” was 25 cents. A seller would keep 75 cents of the selling price, and pay the Street Beacon 25 cents for each copy.

Staffing the Paper

If we were skeptical of the business viability of the paper the first time around, we had no reservations about the journalistic viability. A cadre of about a dozen students produced a lot of good copy to fill a rather large “news hole” (remember, the paper was twelve pages and had no ads).

Many of the original group of student journalists are still with the paper. A few have drifted off, to be replaced by new people recruited into the project.

Ryno wrote much of the copy for the first issue (about half of it, by our count), but says that having “set the tone” for the paper, he intends to “back out” a bit, letting the rest of the staff do the vast majority of the writing.

As with any student enterprise, a big issue is whether new people will take over when the student entrepreneurs graduate. Ryno admits to worrying a bit that many seniors are among the paper’s writers.

The paper now has online a handsome website with several articles from the first issue:

Time will tell whether the Street Beacon can become a fixture in the Near West Side community. But every new issue increases the probability of long-term success, adding credibility and visibility while the entrepreneur who started the paper learns from mistakes and adopts to the environment, tweaking what needs to be tweaked.

The paper has already done better than we expected. It may do better still.

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