A Leading Street Newspaper Investigates Long-Term Sustainability

 

September 8, 2013; Herald Times Reporter

 

The August 28 issue of the Contributor leads with two unmistakable words: “Final Issue?” With a monthly run of 110,000 papers, the largest circulation of any nonprofit street newspaper in the country, the Nashville-based Contributor has become an industry leader in the last six years, which is why the paper’s current financial challenges are also being followed by the media, including a recent AP story. Although early positive responses from a recently launched public fundraising campaign suggest that the paper won’t have to shut down imminently, current staff members are exploring new ways to get local readers and supporters to actually contribute to the Contributor.

According to Tom Wills, a co-founder of the Contributor and director of vending, growth at what had been an all-volunteer paper since 2007 “exploded” in 2010. Wills explained in an email that the city of Nashville helped to promote the paper’s growth by exempting newspaper vendors, most of whom are either homeless or formerly homeless, from having to purchase vendor licenses (as other municipalities have regulated) and by permitting newspaper sales to people in cars. Over time, the Contributor has also managed to draw support from Nashville’s progressive community and the city’s conservative community, in part because of the fact that the organization shares office space in two churches. Although Wills pointed out that this early growth from earned income made it possible to upgrade volunteer positions to paid staff positions, he explained that the organization did not have a fundraising base in place to sustain it. Providing a glimpse of the challenges shared by many new nonprofits that have benefitted from similar growth spurts, Wills said, “We not only need to raise funds to continue operation and replenish our reserves, but we also need to take steps to assure that our operation expenses are not incompatible with our earned income and fundraising capacity.”

Looking forward, Wills and his colleagues see that a challenge is to get readers to think of the Contributor as an entire organization that needs support. As a vital piece of this puzzle, the staff is highlighting the contributions and success stories of vendors such as Anita Smith, a former vendor and resident of a domestic violence shelter, who has moved on to be a reporter and speaker for the paper and was highlighted in the AP story. Reflecting on their recently launched campaign, Wills indicated that he and his colleagues are hopeful. Whether through the eye-catching headline or the organization’s new strategy, he explained, “we have caught the attention of the readership with this issue.”—Anne Eigeman