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Washtenaw County street paper “Groundcover” celebrates 5th anniversary

After five years, Washtenaw County’s street paper “Groundcover,” is facing more demand than the monthly publication can handle.

Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio

Groundcover pledges news “from the ground up,” and serves as an accessible source of income for homeless and for other people for whom mainstream employment is difficult to find. Vendors buy the paper for 25 cents and sell it for a dollar.

Circulation has grown immensely over five years, with sales now reaching up to 12,000 papers a month, compared to 1,500 during its first year, said the paper’s founder, Susan Beckett. It’s not rare to pass three or four vendors when walking through downtown Ann Arbor, but as vendors sling papers throughout the month, their customer base naturally grows thinner.

To address this, the paper is now partnering with another local publication, which is also celebrating five years, The Ann magazine.

“Our vendors for a long time have been saying they want something new, something fresh to sell mid- month,” said Beckett. “We’re looking at maybe putting out just a four page Groundcover with an Ann inside of it that they can sell in the second half of the month."

The Ann
Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio
The Ann magazine is partnering with Groundcover to offer vendors something extra to sell when customers don't want to buy duplicate papers halfway through the month. It was founded by Kyle Poplin in 2010.

The Ann is a glossy magazine born from founder Kyle Poplin’s University of Michigan Knight-Wallace fellowship, where he researched new journalism business models. The magazine is free to pick up around town, and is filled with long features critiquing Ann Arbor’s architecture or chronicling a controversial fracking plan, alongside with photo features and local library recommendations.  

It’s a local-print collaboration at a time when both local journalism and print journalism are widely seen as struggling. Studies show that most local news is consumed on television.

Groundcover is supported by volunteers and grants, and the Ann funds publication with advertising revenue, said Myra Poplin, the magazine’s public relations person. She said providing Groundcover vendors with extra content to sell is an extension of the Ann’s belief in journalism as an inherently social venture.

“The social impact for the Ann is greater because of our collaboration with Groundcover,” she said. “It’s expanding our purpose.”

Beckett said Groundcover works as a bridge "to something better." It’s flexible employment that, with enough stamina and salesmanship, can help vendors pay for a room or an efficiency, and move forward from there.

Lit Kurtz
Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio
Groundcover vendor Lit Kurtz buys papers to sell from volunteer Diane Chatman. Kurtz also writes for the paper and runs a blog on the side called "You Can't Say That Lit."

Lit Kurtz, who previously worked as a school teacher in Detroit, said people don’t realize just how much having a home provides. She said she’s been turned down from jobs simply for admitting to being homeless, with promises of a position once her housing situation stabilized. It’s also hard to appear professional when you don’t have reliable access to showers and reliable transportation.

Groundcover offers an economic opportunity when mainstream employment doesn't.

Over the past five years, Groundcover has also grown its support services, Beckett said, offering resume writing workshops, computer literacy classes, and partnering with local transit to provide vendors with bus passes as incentives to sell more papers.

It also gives vendors a way to connect to the community in a situation that can be socially isolating.

“As people get to know their Groundcover vendors, they develop a relationship and they start to see homeless people as people, not as ‘The Homeless,’” said Beckett.

There are social hours every Thursday night in the basement of a local church. Volunteers bring cookies and sandwiches, and everybody sits around the table discussing everything from police brutality to food waste.

Volunteer and Joe
Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio
The Groundcover holds social hours every Thursday, where vendors and volunteers share food and conversation. Ocassionally Groundcover will host a workshop on topics like resume writing, legal help or journalism.

“The paper is just a tool for them to sell,” said office volunteer Diane Chatman. “But when they come in here we greet them and finding out what they need. Get them a meal. Somebody may want a cup of coffee. Somebody may just want to sit around here and kick it with us.”

-Paula Friedrich, Michigan Radio Newsroom