Brianna Reilly (left) and Robert Huffar have managed to continue publishing while reorganizing the newspaper's staff and board.
The newspaper Street Pulse has been credited not just with giving a voice to the homeless, but helping some people get off the streets.
But this winter, an internal struggle threatened to tank the paper, spilling onto the front page of its March edition.
In early February, most of the paper’s board and staff resigned. Those who stayed have been scrambling to reorganize while continuing to publish.
“We’re working on re-forming the board of directors right now,” says Briana Reilly, interim designer and editor in chief. “We’re trying to figure out membership requirements and things like that, and guidelines which, honestly, should have been put in place a long time ago.”
Monthly publication has been uninterrupted, largely due to Reilly, a UW-Madison sophomore journalism student.
“She’s the one who saved our butts,” says Robert Huffar, who was appointed executive director at an emergency board meeting following the walk-out on Feb. 8.
Many of the problems could be characterized as personality clashes, but there was also disagreement over the paper’s content. Reilly says that coverage had increasingly extended to social justice issues other than homelessness, and that the tone had become strident.
Former staff trained volunteers “like they were going to be out on the front lines in a violent protest,” says Huffar, who served — and continues to serve — as vendor coordinator. “They could get hurt and go to jail and stuff like this. And I’m going, ‘No!’”
Journalism ethics and libel law also became contentious. Huffar, a native of New Lisbon, trained himself as a paralegal while in a Montana prison. He recalls, “I could see this stuff and I’d bring it up, and I’d get blown off by [staff]. ‘Oh, we don’t have to worry about that. We’ve got freedom of the press. We can say what we want.’ Well, you can’t.”
The March issue includes a front-page apology from Huffar to readers, vendors and volunteers for mismanagement and mistakes.
The paper started in 2005. Vendors, who tend to be homeless or very low-income, purchase papers for 25 cents and sell them for $1. Reporters get free copies in exchange for writing. There are currently 35 vendors, who are ubiquitous around the Capitol Square and State Street. Circulation is 6,000.
The paper’s legal status is uncertain. Its website states that it “is a nonprofit cooperative.” However, the publication has never incorporated. Instead, when it was organized, the nonprofit Madison-Area Urban Ministry served as fiscal receiver.
This is a not-uncommon practice for nonprofit start-ups, allowing donors to receive charitable deductions while the lengthy process of attaining tax-exempt status is completed.
Street Pulse seems to have made no progress toward receiving its own nonprofit corporate status or qualifying as tax-exempt. Says Huffar: “There is no paperwork at all.”
After the February crisis, Huffar immediately met with Madison-Area Urban Ministry. “We’re back under their umbrella, now,” Huffar says. Technically, however, it may be that Street Pulse has always been a legal extension of the ministry.
Huffar says that Linda Ketcham, the ministry’s executive director, and Brian Solomon, former city council member, have both agreed to serve as advisers to the paper’s board. Neither responded to repeated requests for comment; nor has David Hilgendorf, the previous publisher.
“It’s a lot on my shoulders,” says Huffar, who says he and his wife “are just on the verge of being homeless.”
“There’s some stress, but I’m enjoying it,” he says. “I want to be able to help these people out here.”
As for the paper, “We need bodies at this point,” says Reilly. “We need volunteers.”
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