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Tuesday, February 1, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Real Change's transformation includes plan to reach readers

Seattle Times staff reporter

Timothy Harris believes helping the homeless and educating the city about homeless issues has made Real Change, Seattle's biweekly street newspaper, a must-buy among those who consider themselves progressive and socially aware.

But "must buy" hasn't always translated into "must read," said Harris, the paper's executive director, who started Real Change 10 years ago. There's a perception that Real Change is "the homeless newspaper, by and for homeless people," Harris said. "It's a perception problem we have to overcome because people have low expectations of the content."

Starting tomorrow, new issues of Real Change will hit the streets every week, instead of every two weeks. The move, as far as Harris can tell, will make his paper the only weekly street paper in the country. The newspaper also was redesigned, with a cleaner look that's easier to navigate, Harris said.

Aside from the new look and increased frequency of publication, Harris is hoping for an even bigger change — he wants Real Change to be seen "as the progressive, community news source."

"For the last 10 years, we've been saying, 'Buy the paper to help the homeless. ... People think it's just a charity buy and that there's nothing in it for them," Harris said. "Those are the people we're trying to convert."

The paper's mission is to give a voice to poor and marginalized people. But Harris said anyone interested in social justice — everything from labor and housing issues to race and gender inequities — can find relevant stories in Real Change and also can learn "how to take action on the issues."

The change to weekly publication has been in the works for at least two years. Three charitable organizations have pledged a combined $165,000 to help Real Change as it doubles its workload — and doubles the cost of producing the paper. The donors were the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, United Way and the Lucky 7 Backus Family Foundation.

To boost content, Harris hired two professional journalists last month, increasing the number of staff writers to three. Still, the bulk of the content is produced by about 50 volunteers, who contribute copy, photographs and illustrations. Other staff members work with the 250 or so vendors who distribute the paper each month.

Harris said his army of homeless vendors — who each pay 30 cents per paper, which they then sell for $1 — typically sold 18,000 copies biweekly. "But we sold three-quarters of them in the first week" after a new issue came out, he said.

Harris expects a starting weekly circulation of 13,000 copies but is hopeful that number will grow.

"It's going to be a challenge," Walt Crowley, one of 35 people on Real Change's advisory board, said of going weekly. "But I know that crew — they're certainly not going to sacrifice coverage or quality to do this."

Crowley, who founded HistoryLink.org, a local-history Web site, said the paper has always advanced a "social-justice, advocacy mission." But now there's an added emphasis on quality journalism, he said.

Those connected to Real Change want the "newspaper to be taken seriously on its own merits," Crowley said, "not just as a vehicle for helping the homeless, but as an urban, community newspaper. That's part of the big picture."

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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