When I tell people that circulation is falling at Real Change and that we are having a hard time recruiting new vendors, they are incredulous. “How is that even possible?” they invariably ask. “With homelessness on the rise like it is, I’d think that people would be banging down your doors.”
Yes, you might think that. And you’d be wrong. Because the fact is that increases in the number of homeless people, rising by 20 percent each year, does not mean that there are more people looking for work. In fact, as homelessness is rising, unemployment is falling. Last May, unemployment hit a record low of 3.3 percent. What this means is quite simple and arresting: People are becoming homeless not because they are losing their jobs, but because they can’t afford rent.
According to data compiled by All Home, for every $100 increase in rent, there is an 15 percent rise in homelessness. When people can no longer afford a permanent shelter, they live in their cars, in transitional housing, in shelters or outside. But in the morning, many of them dust themselves off and go to work. Those people are not likely prospective Real Change vendors.
In years past, when unemployment has been higher, Real Change has been able to take a fairly passive approach to recruiting vendors. Word of mouth was pretty much all we needed to ensure a steady influx of new vendors. This year, we are adopting proactive strategies to increase the flow of vendors. These include doing mobile orientations in the community, using paid vendor interns to do outreach and posting recruitment materials at high-traffic locations.
The silver lining for us is that although vendor numbers have been declining, our vendor retention has improved. We have figured out how to better engage and keep vendors once they come to Real Change and as a result, we are no longer seeing 95 percent of vendors who attend orientations disappearing 3 months later. If we are able to be as successful with strategies to bring in new people as we have been with strategies to keep them, we should see a rebound in circulation this year.
The other big reason circulation is falling is an obvious one: People are buying fewer papers. Print newspapers across the nation, even the world, are in decline. Millennials regard newspapers the way baby boomers regard 8-track tape — relics of a bygone era. Today, if 20-somethings can’t pay for a product and read it using their smartphone, they often are not interested. We released a mobile app last year that allows people to buy electronic copies of the paper, but it’s been glitchy and slow to catch on with vendors and readers. Vendors need to opt into the technology and they are more likely to do it when their customers ask them for it. Next time you see a vendor, ask them if they have a QR code on their badge that allows you to buy an electronic copy of the paper.
Over and over again, we hear accolades for the quality of our paper. The industry recognized us with 16 first-place awards for quality journalism in 2015. Customers tell us all the time that they value us for telling the stories that The Seattle Times won’t, and for our content-heavy format that minimizes the role of paid advertising. We have a great product and getting more people to not only buy it, but read it, is one of our biggest priorities in 2016.
Circulation isn’t just about income for us. It’s about building awareness of issues of economic and racial justice, and creating a means for meaningful interactions and relationships between readers and vendors.
If our circulation is declining, we are less effective in meeting our mission. Many of our readers ask: What can we do? It’s really simple. Buy the paper. Read the paper.
Engage with vendors and take action. Then tell your friends to do the same.