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Originally published March 31, 2013 at 8:58 PM | Page modified April 1, 2013 at 1:14 PM

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Real Change: raising newspaper price should help vendors earn more

Starting Wednesday, Real Change, the street paper sold by vendors, goes from $1 to $2. Some are leery, but the paper says it will actually help them: They’ll pocket $1.40 instead of 65 cents for each issue sold.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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His customers tell George Sidwellthey’ll go along with the price increase, and so he is not worried.

He is standing at one of his usual spots, outside the entrance to the QFC at West Seattle Junction.

“How you doing, ma’am?” Sidwell says in a cheery voice, which is pretty cheery considering that on this afternoon, before the weather recently turned sunny, it is windy, rainy and wasn’t that hail that came down a few minutes ago?

“Copy of Real Change? Help the homeless.”

The woman smiles but walks on. Oh, well.

Sidwell claps his hands together to warm up. He’s wearing gloves, a jean jacket and pullover cap. This is selling a newspaper the old-fashioned way.

The print media are scrambling for ways to make money, and Real Change, the weekly paper sold by street vendors, has its own issues. But unlike general-interest newspapers, and their worries over big advertising losses, giving away stories free online and the cost of delivery, Real Change says it’s raising the price because the vendors need to earn more money.

Beginning with Wednesday’s issue, a copy of Real Change will rise from $1 to $2, the first increase since the paper was founded in 1994 by Tim Harris.

“Some of our vendors are making like five bucks an hour. We want to reward them for selling the paper, and make closer to minimum wage,” says Harris.

He says Real Change will be the sixth North American city — including Vancouver, B.C., and Chicago — to raise prices for its street newspapersto $2.

Sales may fall

Given what has happened in those cities, he expects circulation to initially drop by a fifth, then rebound over the next year.

Real Change has done well since its start.

In 2012, the paper, which features stories on poverty, homelessness and social justice, sold 872,552 copies, nearly 17,000 a week, and some 300 vendors a week derive some sort of income, from just a few dollars to several hundred.

Harris says that at first, when the price increase was explained at meetings with vendors, some feared how customers would react. He says he told them to talk to customers.

Says Sidwell, “They’re OK with it.”

At the current price of $1, he sells about 180 papers a week; with tips, he figures he earns close to $300 a week. That helps a lot with paying for his room at the Jet Inn Motel in Tukwila.

He moved there a few weeks ago from Nickelsville, the homeless camp on West Marginal Way Southwest. “It was time to get out of that cycle,” he says about the camp.

But the motel is $250 a week, and even with savings he has accumulated, and food stamps, “it’s tight,” says Sidwell. He and another man plan to share an apartment.

Sidwell, 49, says he used to be in construction until in 2009 he had the first of four strokes.

“I only quit using a cane two months ago,” he says.

Busy vendor

Sidwell began selling Real Change last summer.

Two or three times a week, he takes a bus to Pioneer Square to pick up some papers at Real Change’s offices.

Sidwell has done so well, he is one of 42 vendors who can wear an ID from the paper that says they belong to the “600 Club,” meaning they sell more than 600 papers a month.

That means they lay claim to selling the paper at a particular spot, in this case, for Sidwell, the QFC entrance at Southwest Alaska Street and 42nd Avenue Southwest. He sells papers there and at the nearby post office.

He says he always tried to sound cheerful, and it’s seldom that he gets a negative reaction.

“Sometimes somebody will say, “Get a job” or “Quit doing drugs and booze.”

Sidwell says he’ll reply, “I’ve been clean and sober for 17½ years.”

Right now, the vendors pay 35 cents a copy, and so, before tips, make 65 cents per paper sold.

The nonprofit has a policy that includes giving five free papers a month for vendors starting out, and in exchange for chores such as sweeping at the Real Change headquarters.

On Wednesday, the vendors will pay 60 cents a copy, and, from the $2 sale, get to keep $1.40.

The extra 25 cents that Real Change will get — as the vendors pay 60 cents instead of 35 cents — could add $200,000 to the paper “in the rosiest of scenarios,” says Harris.

Harris says Real Change has an annual budget of nearly $1 million. Its 2012 annual report says streets sales contributed less than a third to that budget, with donations, a fundraising breakfast and grants covering much of the rest.

A good chunk of that $1 million in expenses is for its paid staff of 14, ranging from an editor to an office manager who average $45,500 a year in salary and health benefits. Harris’ compensation was the highest, at around $67,000.

He says, “We have thought a lot about our pay scale. There is a United Way annual survey of nonprofit wages, and we intentionally have a salary structure on the low side of average. With a staff of 14, we‘re barely getting it done. We manage 300 vendors a month, and put out a quality weekly paper, and we have an advocacy arm for the homeless.”

At the QFC, on this day, one of Sidwell’s customers is Jessica Dodge.

“I’m a freelance artist. I don’t have a lot of disposable income. I may buy it marginally less if I don’t have a couple of bucks,” she says about the price increase.

Dodge also says that she does read the paper and has seen it improve over the years.

Harris says he knows some people buy Real Change as a way to help the homeless, but don’t actually read it.

That’s one of the reasons staffers with journalism experience were brought in, “to professionalize it,” he says.

He says, “I run into this all the time. I still hear regularly from people saying they had bought the paper for three years, and finally read a story that was on the cover, and they say, ‘It’s actually a good newspaper.’”

Says Dodge, “It’s definitely improved over time. At first it had a newslettery feel to it. It still has some schlocky poetry, but even if a lot of people aren’t reading it, it’s a voice for a population that is spoken about but not often heard from.”

On this afternoon, Sidwell says, “I try not let it get me down,” as he keeps greeting potential customers, and mostly keeps getting ignored.

In the Internet age, that is a print-world reality.

News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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