August 20, 1994: Real Change

Real Change founder and director Tim Harris outside the paper's original office in Belltown, May 2010 Kelly O / The Stranger
Real Change founder and director Tim Harris
outside the paper’s original office in Belltown, May 2010
Kelly O / The Stranger

When is a newspaper more than a newspaper?

On the date in focus here, that question was answered in Seattle with the debut issue of Real Change, our city’s weekly progressive street newspaper. The answer: when the newspaper is also an activist organization.

Still unique today among Seattle’s regular print publications, while Real Change is written, edited, and published by a professional staff, it’s sold exclusively by self-employed vendors — many of whom are homeless — working in street locations all around the city. Crucially, the paper provides its vendors with an alternative to panhandling as a source of regular income. Vendors pay 60 cents for each copy of Real Change, then resell the paper for the current $2 cover price plus tips. Journalistically, the paper covers a variety of local social justice-related topics, including homelessness, poverty, and gentrification.

Real Change is a hand up — not a hand out,” goes the paper’s motto.

Part of a national street-newspaper movement begun in 1989 by Street News in New York City, Real Change employs up to 400 vendors each month, and currently has a paid weekly circulation of up to 22,000 copies each week.

The paper’s founder and director, Tim Harris, previously founded the street newspaper Spare Change in the Boston area in 1992. After moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris started Real Change as a monthly newspaper with only one staff member, operating from a tiny storefront in the Belltown neighborhood. Attracted to Seattle due to our existing homeless advocacy organizations such as Operation Homestead and SHARE/WHEEL, Harris moved here with the specific intention of starting a new street paper similar to Spare Change.

The year 1994 was an ideal time to start such a project in Seattle. The city was then at the apex of its most economically prosperous decade to date — yet the city’s underclass was not benefiting from that prosperity. Rather than using that prosperity to help its underclass, the Seattle city government was then drafting and passing legislation — known as the “civility laws” — that essentially punished homeless people for being homeless. These laws were championed primarily by Mark Sidran, the notorious city attorney who held that office from 1990 to 2002.

Since its founding, Real Change has compensated greatly for Seattle’s ongoing neglect of its underclass, not only by providing the city’s homeless population with an alternative to panhandling, but also by providing them (and Seattle’s underclass in general) with a crucial voice in city affairs. In a 2010 profile in The Stranger, Harris mused on Real Change‘s uncanny influence within Seattle city politics, and the strategic leverage the paper has provided for the city’s underclass.

“The beautiful thing about Real Change,” Harris told The Stranger, “is that it isn’t a politically smart thing to do to hate on Real Change.”

In recent years, the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project (an adjunct organization) has led several successful campaigns for economic justice in Seattle. Among these were campaigns to humanize Seattle’s urban campsite clearance policies, stop a proposed new jail from being built, and defeat aggressive panhandling legislation that was unanimously condemned by the Seattle Human Rights Commission.

(The organization was also instrumental in the 2011 grassroots effort to stop the deep-bore tunnel option for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project. That effort was obviously and unfortunately a failure.)

In general, Real Change has achieved increasing success in several ways during the past 20 years. In January 1999, the paper began publishing every other week. In February 2005, encouraged by increasing interest and sales, the paper began publishing weekly. In April 2009, Real Change won national recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists for a story on the life and death of a man who jumped from the Aurora Bridge. In May 2010, the paper’s offices moved from Belltown to more spacious headquarters in Pioneer Square — despite an effort by certain neighboring business owners to prevent the move.

In April 2013, Real Change was finally able to translate the success of the paper into an increase in earned income for its vendors — the first in its history. When the paper was founded in 1994, the cover price was one dollar, out of which each vendor earned 65 cents for each copy they sold. They now earn $1.40 for each paper sold. The price change was the result of much research and feedback from Real Change vendors and readers, as well as other street newspapers in other cities.

Most recently, in November 2013, the paper expanded its distribution to Bellevue and Bremerton. Real Change currently plans to further expand throughout the Salish Sea region in the near future, and is also developing a phone app that will enable cashless transactions between vendors and customers.

Sources: Maureen O’Hagan, “Street newspaper bucks trend,” The Seattle Times, April 18, 2009, p. B1; Dominic Holden, “Honorary Political Genius: Tim Harris and Real Change,” The Stranger, September 16, 2010; Deanna Duff, “Most Influential: Real Change’s Tim Harris,” Seattle magazine, November 2010; Sara Lerner, “Seattle Street Newspaper Real Change Raises Price,”, April 4, 2013; Danny Westneat, “Real Change comes to Bellevue,” The Seattle Times, November 20, 2013, p. B1; Hallie Golden, “Making Real Change,” City Living Seattle, December 12, 2013; Meghan Gelbach, “‘Real Change’ Goes Mobile,” Seattle magazine, February 2014.

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, the content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.