First among equals
Norwegian street magazine editor Anlov Mathiesen credits the publication’s success to idealism, professionalism and the necessary amount of cynicism
The Norwegian word for equal is “erlik.” It’s also the name of one of the world’s most successful and respected street publications, Erlik Norge. Unlike many of its counterparts around the world, the Norwegian publication supports itself entirely through sales of the magazine. Erlik Norge, which comes out monthly and costs 50 kroner (about $8.50), does not receive funding from government or charities, and the highly stylized periodical has a strict no-advertising policy.
Anlov Mathiesen, editor of Erlik Norge and co-founder of the Erlik Foundation, spoke to the International Network of Street Newspapers (INSP) about the publication’s success, the importance of unbiased journalism and the future of street magazines.
How did you become involved in the street paper movement?
I first started out as a journalist back in 2004 and became a part of the founding group as a board member, writer and part of the day-to-day running of the company.
What are the benefits of street papers over traditional press?
One of our biggest assets is the unique access to sources normally not easily available to the [mainstream] press, such as the homeless, drug addicts and, generally speaking, people outside the mainstream society.
Another benefit is that working for a street paper gives you integrity, if nothing else because of the reality and credibility of the vendors, which in turn creates a trustworthiness you don’t find too often in other media. As long as street papers keep up with the nonprofit model and become better at cooperating with each other, this credibility will only get stronger.
How have things changed for street papers since you started the Erlik Foundation in 2005?
In Norway there has been a phenomenal expansion and rise of numerous street papers since we started in 2005. Which means people are now used to seeing the vendors on the streets. On one hand, that leads to more respect, more acknowledgement and less stigma towards our group of vendors (in Norway that equates to drug addicts, for the most part). On the other hand, the original consumer urge and eagerness from the public has calmed down a bit, which means somewhat lesser sales.
Outside of Norway there has been an all-too-obvious financial crisis, leading to a lot of hardship for street papers all over Europe and the rest of the world. In Norway we’re still quite lucky in this respect, as the oil keeps us rich.
From my point of view there has also been a positive development within the street paper world, especially in Scandinavia, where street magazines (as we tend to call them) are being produced more professionally than before. Better design, better photography and, crucially, more professional journalism.
How is Erlik Norge adapting to the rise of digital technology?
By being conscious and patient. The key is to knowing your weight class. There’s no point going about creating the most innovative app, the smartest web page, or introducing readers to new pay-per-read article viewing unless you have the staff to maintain and constantly develop the product further. As such, we are simply trying to be honest with ourselves, in the terms of ... Let’s say we are really good at Facebook (33,000 followers and quite decent interaction), but the homepage sucks. Well, instead of trying to compete on both platforms, we just make a basic home page which requires no time or effort, and keep on doing what we’re good at, namely Facebook and various social medias [Twitter, Instagram].
One drawback is obviously that you cannot dictate the design or functionality on Facebook (or similar pages). On the other hand, you’ve got the best technical teams in the world developing your home pages for all kinds of platforms: Android, iPhone or whatever.
The biggest challenge comes when people are no longer interested in reading paper. But that day will not come for a long, long time. The vendors don’t only sell a magazine, they also sell an experience. And as long as that is the case, magazines will sell.
That being said, we do have to expand our thinking about the editorial content. We need to get online in ways we don’t even know today. But unless you’re a web genius, you shouldn’t be investing too much money in this. Instead, let the big media do that and copy their successes.
What are the new challenges and opportunities emerging for street papers and how are you planning to handle them?
The payment process is probably the single biggest challenge of the coming years. People don’t use cash, or they will soon stop using cash altogether. The banks will see to that. But we need to be up front on this, without spending too much on development. We are introducing a payment through SMS scheme from this year, probably September. It has obviously already been done by other, more innovative papers with mixed results. But it has to be done, and we all need to calculate some risk and even some losses in the process.
This also represents an opportunity, because a lot of people who didn’t buy the magazine before will be able to do so, and there will be lots of different ways of offering discounts when buying multiple magazines and so forth.
Another challenge is the economic hardships mounting in different parts of Europe, and especially in the south. This will make it harder for the street papers and harder for the vendors in these countries. But it also presents an opportunity for papers elsewhere to cooperate with local papers and create new ones.
Is the current street paper model still viable? What is the future for it?
Yes, it is. I think the principle of nonprofit and the principle of 50 percent to the vendor are extremely important to maintain. The future lies in refining these, strengthening them. Both represent the credibility which lets the street paper survive for more than a couple of years. Anyone can earn good money for a short while by exploiting the vendors, the concept and the goodwill of the public. But only by sticking to some good fundamentals will the organization have a chance to grow into something more.
That being said, I think maybe more papers should merge and create bigger and stronger organizations. The positives are obvious, because a bigger readership gives you more copies, cheaper print, more employees and more vendors. At the end of the day it gives you far bigger muscles to handle the social problems that you’re lucky enough to be in charge of handling. In short, it gives the vendor a better product, in terms of social work, journalism, organization, campaigning and so on.
On a similar note, I think the future for street papers lies in professionalism. The journalism should be the best you can find in its genre. The same with the photographs, the design and the service to the vendors.
Our line of work is a privilege. But it’s also a responsibility to the vendors. This might seem like an extreme opinion, but I think it’s better to not start a street paper than starting one without being able to deliver to the vendor.
In what ways does Erlik Norge benefit its vendors?
We try to serve them as far as our staff and skills go. Approximately half of our staff members are educated and able social workers, capable of motivating and handling basic health issues. They’re also skilled in dealing with the specifics of a large group of drug addicts. We provide a contact point, where the vendors can ask for all sorts of advice. But we are limited in staff, resources and skills, and many times all we can do is put the vendor in touch with other organizations or institutions.
We also provide an important platform for the vendors to participate in debates and public social agendas. In combination with exposure of lifestyle, ideas and opinions in the magazine itself, this leads to a different approach from the public at large. This change has happened quite fast.
There is also an element of dignity through the work itself, combined with the quality of the physical format of the magazine. In my view, this is of major importance to the vendor’s ability to build self-esteem through proper and honest work.
But maybe the single most important thing we provide is the chance for the vendors to meet, communicate, and, in various different ways, interact with the public.
Erlik Norge is one of the only street papers in the INSP network that is self-sufficient through sales alone. Why do you think this is? What makes Erlik Norge so successful?
First of all, I have to admit to a certain amount of luck in this respect. Producing and running a magazine in the capitol of one of the wealthiest countries in the world does come with some benefits. People want to contribute, and they’re willing to pay.
That being said, we have also done a lot of things right. Nothing comes for free, and you need some sound principles and good staff to build a healthy business.
There are several keys to our relative success. I’ll list them:
Product quality: To mirror the dignity of the vendor’s humanity (nothing less) and to give the buyer quality for money; we always want to provide quality. To do that you have to invest in it. We try to reflect this principle in design, photography and journalism.
Social work: The vendors aren’t just workers who sell the papers for us. We want to work with them, on an equal, though professional, level. Which means that there needs to be some limits to the vendors’ involvement in the business; but on the other hand, we invest a lot in the work on the ground and in our shop. Again, investment is key.
Independence: Journalistically (which means not being politically biased, like, sadly, way too many street papers are), organizationally (somewhat the same, but includes openness to operate on all sides of politics regardless of one’s own political views) and, crucially, economically. This last point is key. Our charter states that we should always work towards being self-sufficient. This principle makes you creative and independent. And while it may seem (and be) hard at times, it keeps you sharp and, ultimately, more functional. Being dependent journalistically or organizationally is in my view a very bad idea, but that’s up to you. But being dependent economically is just a very bad idea for purely financial reasons. Public funding dulls the senses and makes you less creative and sharp.
Always evolve: products, distribution and expansions. If you don’t evolve or grow, you stop thinking, and if you stop thinking, the vendors will suffer. It’s not about making more money or growing per se but about keeping the company alive at all times. Never fall asleep.
Being business-minded on behalf of the vendors: It’s nice being full of ideas and feelings, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the income and the everyday life of the vendor. Don’t ever sacrifice the vendors’ interest for your own. Think business, and be capable of cynicism, again, on behalf of the vendor and the company’s “greater good.” This kind of cynicism is crucial.
In 2012 you were voted editor of the year by Oslo Editor’s Association. Can you explain your unique approach to editing and running a street paper?
I believe in a sound [application] of journalistic principles. The reporting should always be fair and balanced, and the quality as good as possible. Way too many publications pretend to be fair, pretend to be unbiased, but clearly aren’t. This is the worst kind of journalism. Well, in fact, it’s not journalism at all. In the street paper world, this is even more important because our mandate and our platform derive from the vendors, and it’s not fair to use that as an excuse to push your own political agenda. It’s also short-sighted, because you will get caught out. The majority of people aren’t interested in propaganda. Neutrality is key, and staying true to the fundamentals of journalism.
Words and visions are fine, but they won’t survive for long unless you’re willing and able to apply a certain amount of functional and practical approaches. You have to make intelligent priorities. For instance, should your limited editorial budget be spent on good writers and quality editing, or should you instead invest in top-notch photographs, good design and layout? These are our everyday challenges as small media organizations, and our worst enemy is the illusion that we can have it all and be best at every aspect of the publication. We can’t. And, therefore, we must make hard priorities and stand by them. So, whatever your priorities, you have to make the public believe in them. That takes time and effort. Being cynical on behalf of the product, the organization and the vendors is key.
What are your plans for the future of Erlik Norge and the Erlik Foundation? You’ve previously mentioned cafes and music festivals.
One of our main goals is to be able to offer something else to the vendors, a step up from selling magazines for the ones who are ready for it. Our specific group of drug addicts in Norway makes this a question of the ones who have gone from heroin (or a mixture of pills and amphetamine) to methadone (or subutex or subuxone). In this we haven’t yet found the right time or project to invest in. It’s also a matter of finding a project that will be economically self-sufficient. It would be a shame to create yet another project dependent on government funding. Cafes or different forms of coffee sales are among the most probable future projects.
[During] the last four years we’ve focused on expanding to other cities and areas, which obviously has taken a lot of investment and effort. It’s been a really interesting journey, though, with lots of expected and unexpected pros and cons: new competitors, greed, successes, good sales, bad sales, different distribution methods and so on. Now that we cover Eastern Norway (without disturbing or competing with other magazines), the main task for the next couple of years is to strengthen those ventures.
And, yes, a festival is underway. If all goes to plan, we’ll launch the very first Oslo-Festival in May 2014. The concept will be a massive focus on homelessness, drug addiction, outcasts, dignity and basic civil rights. It will be a music and arts festival filled with major Norwegian acts and artists, mixed with contribution from the people on the streets.
What could other street papers in the network do to improve their sales and become self-sufficient?
The first step to self-sufficiency is to set it as a goal, an ambition. To want it and to set up the company in order to be able to reach it. Maybe you’ll never get there, but the probability increases dramatically if the whole organization is headed in that specific direction. If not, you might get there by sheer luck or chance, but it will most likely not be because of anything you planned. But the company (its board, its employees, its leaders, you) must really want it. That’s a choice.
Then there are sales. Well, that’s tougher, because every paper and every nation and, indeed, every city, is a different story. That being said, I think we all need to think as professionally as we can, in every aspect of running our companies. First of all, be professional in dealing with your vendors, build up the skills within your organization to deal with the everyday challenges. Then, secondly, be hard-nosed with your finances, to the extreme if need be. A company must at all times have, at the very least, one skilled accountant to keep the money safe. Too many street papers and idealistic projects (and small businesses in general) get their finances messed up.
Then, when the handling of vendors and the cash flow are in safe (professional!) hands, you can start worrying about the fun part, the paper/magazine itself. Whatever money you’ve got left after paying the bills, rent, salaries and equipment should be invested in journalism, because a bad product is never ever going to get proper respect from the public. And you will need that respect in the future.
Remember that you’re professionals with an important job to do, not radicals changing the world by using big words.
What is your opinion of INSP and how could it improve?
INSP is an impressive organization doing really, really important work. I attended my first INSP conference in Poznan in 2007, and remember how I instinctively thought that the network maybe should be doing more, should be having a greater impact and a bigger voice. I might have had some fair points, but mainly I got it wrong. I was looking at it upside down. I wasn’t yet aware of the groundwork being done, the fundamental networking and day-to-day sharing of skills and knowledge. Today, I know a bit more and have come to respect the work of the staff and the board a lot. Just to keep all the different papers together is hard work, in many different ways. And to be able to be patient, building slowly for the future by applying long-term strategies, while we — the members — keep making impatient noises, is both important and wise.
Improvement-wise, my view is that there are a couple of areas with really interesting potential. One is in the choice and standard of the editorial content being distributed and the potential media partnerships and collaborations. Another is the methods and organization in the start-up of new papers. There might also be some interesting possibilities when it comes to partnerships in general, internationally. But then again, most of this is stuff the network has been working on for years, and it’s a matter of patience.
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