Change at Groundcover
The woman behind Groundcover News has finally found her successors.
From the March, 2018 issue
Ted Sylvester and Laurie Wechter, a husband-and-wife team who combine backgrounds in social work and journalism, are taking over from Susan Beckett, who launched the "street paper" in 2010. Beckett, sixty-three, has long wanted to pass the torch, but few jumped at the chance to run a paper sold by people who are homeless or "housing unstable." Beckett had advertised for the position without success until Elmo Morales, owner of Elmo's T-Shirts, put Sylvester and Wechter in touch with her.
From 1986 to 1998, the couple published Agenda: Ann Arbor's Alternative Newsmonthly, whose coverage included stories on local poverty and homelessness. "Laurie and I are both really honored to do this," Sylvester says. "It feels terrific to get involved in the community again with such a worthy project."
Beckett intends to remain active as a volunteer for the next year (she's never drawn a salary). Though backed by contract editor Andrew Nixon and about fifteen volunteers, she'd been the go-to person for the forty or so vendors who sell papers each month. Sometimes, she helps them out, from giving rides to once bailing a woman out of the Wayne County jail. When she wrote up the fraught experience--bureaucratic errors and indifference abounded--some readers were so shocked that they donated money to the vendor. Many Groundcover stories are written by the vendors themselves.
Beckett first heard of "street" newspapers when she was handed one in Seattle during the Great Recession. She figured an extra $100-$200 a month could help vendors stay housed, and help readers see the people behind the statistics. "I do think Groundcover was instrumental in creating the personal relationship that put a face on a person," she says.
Sylvester and Wechter share Beckett's passion. Sylvester, an experienced freelance writer, will supervise editorial content as executive director. Wechter, a social worker, will be "human services director," a position that's still being defined. Also not yet defined is how the couple will be paid; they
are starting on a contract basis, which will be evaluated by the nonprofit's board after three months. (Ads provide most of the revenue.)
In Groundcover's early years, eight or nine regulars did most of the selling. But as the job market improved and vendors found other employment, that number has dwindled to three. Sylvester says monthly circulation is about 4,000--down from 5,000 or so before the suggested donation was raised from $1 to $2 last year (vendors keep 75 percent of the price). He's confident he can boost circulation again.
Beckett says board members have asked "is it time to start thinking about folding?" but decided it was important to keep the publication going.
"Even with a good economy," she says, "there are still no good alternatives for people who need to set their schedules daily based on their health ... Groundcover News is filling that need--and the need for human interaction."
from Calls & Letters, May 2018
"The majority of the organization's income actually comes from sales of papers to vendors, not advertising," emailed Groundcover News founder Susan Beckett, correcting an error in our March Inside Ann Arbor item on the street paper's leadership transition. Beckett also clarified that while a small number of vendors account for a significant portion of monthly sales, many more derive some income from the paper.
"We have about 35 vendors who are active each month," she writes. "At one time, there were eight or nine of them who sold 800 or more copies per month (yielding incomes of at least $600). As the economy improved, many of them got jobs in the mainstream economy and there are now only three who regularly achieve those sales numbers. Most of the rest sell between twenty and three hundred copies per month."
[Originally published in March, 2018.]
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