When Tim Harris speaks, he rarely uses the word “I.” The Real Change News executive director almost always says “we,” referring to the staff, volunteers, vendors and board of directors that make his street newspaper possible.
It’s this type of team-oriented thinking that has pushed Real Change to be considered the most successful street newspaper in all of North America, with Harris leading the charge.
During a time when most print publications have faced cutbacks and closures, Real Change has seen an increase in circulation, talent and public interest. Not bad for a plucky nonprofit started by a man fresh off a similar, albeit mistake-ridden, venture in Boston called Spare Change News.
“The paper in Boston was run entirely by homeless folks,” Harris said. “That turned out to be difficult, so I was looking to start over somewhere else, with a straight paper on a more sustainable model.”
In 1994, Harris relocated to Seattle and founded Real Change. Beginning as a monthly paper with only one staff member, Harris has helped the paper and business model grow into what he hopes will remains a “long-lasting community institution.”
Although his work has garnered national attention and prestige, Harris admits that it wasn’t always so.
Through Real Change, he has become a pioneer in successful street newspapers and created a work environment that employees want to be in, an opportunity that vendors are happy to have and a product that readers devour.
In 1992, Harris was an organizer working with homeless people in Boston. He said he was struck by how difficult it was to get homeless people involved in social change, activism and economic-justice work.
“The horizon for social-change work and social-justice work is very long and uncertain, and homeless people’s need are very immediate and dire,” Harris said.
With a background in both organizing and independent media, Harris saw the homeless newspaper idea as a way to shrink the divide between the homeless and the middle class. He also saw a way for the homeless to be involved in social-justice work while meeting their immediate needs simultaneously.
With this opportunity in mind, Harris teamed up with Tim Hobson and 12 other homeless people to start Spare Change News.
Being entirely run by homeless people created problems in Harris’ mind: “Homeless folks were entirely in charge of the paper, and it turned out to be a not-
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