Groundcover: Ann Arbor's grassroots newspaper

Nicholas Williams/Daily

By John Lynch, Managing Arts Editor
Published October 15, 2014

James Tennis stands in a windbreaker and Michigan cap outside of Nickel’s Arcade at North University Avenue and State Street — braving a brisk October rain and covering a stack of newspapers with a plastic bag. The papers he’s holding are the latest issue of “Groundcover News,” a monthly street newspaper designed to provide job opportunities to homeless and low-income people in the Ann Arbor area, and he sells them for one dollar a piece.

“I’ve been selling here for a whole year at Nickel’s Arcade,” Tennis says. “And they say 60,000 people walk past me a day, so really it’s been a blessing from God.”

Tennis, 40, was living with his mother in 2013 when he discovered Groundcover through word-of-mouth and went to the company’s office at Bethlehem United Church of Christ to apply and train for a job as a Groundcover vendor. Since then, Tennis has supported himself through his paper sales alone, working hard to develop a customer base among University students and Ann Arborites while combatting the troubles of a low-income lifestyle.

“Most of the students here are very intellectual, very nice and warm-hearted,” Tennis says. “And then you get some people who are just evil and they spit at you and talk bad about you. It’s an up-and-down thing, but I sleep in a tent outside, so I have to deal with all elements: from the weather, and from the people.”

Since its first issue in April 2010, Groundcover has helped people like Tennis get back on their feet by providing a more constructive alternative to panhandling. Today, there are around 35 active vendors working, as Groundcover publisher and founder Susan Beckett describes, on the principle of “self-reliance”; vendors receive their first 10 papers for free, which they then sell for one dollar per copy, and can subsequently buy additional papers for 25 cents each.

Before founding Groundcover, Beckett had worked for nearly 25 years as a volunteer lobbyist with a group called, Results, where she learned how microfinancing could help to alleviate the worst aspects of hunger and poverty by reaching those people who lacked access to banks or loans.

Six years ago, when visiting her daughter in Seattle, Beckett encountered people selling street newspapers around the city and realized that a similar product could work to benefit low-income residents in her hometown of Ann Arbor, so she gradually went about formulating ideas for the paper, presenting the concept to her activist friends and city officials.

In 2009, as her plan for the non-profit was starting to come to fruition, Beckett met some resistance from the City Council’s downtown marketing committee, who feared that a street newspaper might lead to a resurgence in downtown panhandling, which they had just clamped down on.

“I had been warned by one of the people who became one of our vendors, and she said, ‘Those business people, they don’t like us, and they’re going to do everything they can to make it not happen,’” Beckett said. “So I kind of went to the committee with the mindset that I was consulting them to see what their concerns were, and if they had any advice, but I was not asking permission.”

Beckett went on to meet with a representative from the North American Street Newspaper Association, who set her up with a printing company and helped her find a 1,000-dollar stipend for the printing of Groundcover’s first issue. Eventually, the company moved from a small space at St. Andrew’s Church to a larger room in the basement of Bethlehem Church on South Fourth Avenue to accommodate the traffic of vendors coming in and out for papers.

Within its first few weeks of operation, Groundcover had already attracted advertisements from a number of local establishments, such as RoosRoast Coffee Works and By The Pound. Today, advertisements make up about one-third of the company’s revenue, and staff and vendors work to secure ads by going into local businesses and speaking with the owners of the companies.

In the Bethlehem Church office, staff volunteers distribute papers and train new vendors on the company’s protocols regarding city ordinances — vendors must wear an ID badge and must be at least a block away from one another when selling. Once a month, Groundcover conducts training sessions on other useful business-related issues.

“One of the things we do is the advance sales workshop … we do workshops on how to sell advertising, basic computer literacy, resumé writing, how to use LinkedIn and Facebook,” Beckett said. “Things that will both help them in selling papers and looking for a future job.”

Office volunteer Keagan Irrer, a graduate from Albion College, said that he has personally trained more than 40 vendors in his time at Groundcover and witnessed impressive progress from many vendors over the years.

“Shawn Story, here,” Irrer said, handing me an August 2014 issue of Groundcover and pointing at the cover photo of a tall Black man standing in Nickel’s Arcade, “Once he was able to get into housing, his sales numbers just sky-rocketed; he was able to be in locations consistently and establish regular customers.”

“Vendor Spotlights” are among the many recurring pieces that make up what Beckett describes as Groundcover’s “eclectic” content. Most issues feature articles written by Groundcover volunteers and vendors, as well as random submissions. While the October issue is politically themed, focusing mostly on the upcoming November elections, past issues of the paper have contained sections on anything from “Opinion” to “Humor” to “Religion.”

“In general, our readership prefers a large variety,” Beckett said. “I’d say a third of our articles have something of a poverty focus, and it is part of our mission to cover those things that nobody else does … but it’s really hard to read page after page about poverty stuff and struggles.”

Vendors are also trained to be familiar with the paper’s content and use the articles as a selling point. And though they are equipped with a quality product — a twelve-page paper with four color pages — the selling of print newspapers remains a difficult task anywhere in the 21st century, especially with students.

“Honestly, the vendors find it hard to sell anywhere except downtown — the Main Street area — and Kerrytown, with the People’s Food Co-op and when the Farmer’s Market is around,” Beckett said. “But, in the last year, the student district has improved considerably, and I attribute that in large part to our student group that started a year ago.”

Jennifer Crorey, Beckett’s niece and a second year nursing student, founded the Groundcover student group in the summer of 2013, when she and several volunteers began helping out around the office, writing articles for the paper and searching for ways to expand the vendors’ range of selling around campus and in the greater Ann Arbor area.

“We were looking to get the word out about Groundcover, since most students didn’t know what it was,” Crorey said. And we’ve also been able to use the University's resources, like last year we got a grant from the Ginsberg Center to make vests for the vendors so that they can expand to other cities and be recognizable in those areas as well.”

Last February, the group recruited former Michigan Basketball player Jordan Morgan and Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje to help spread awareness for Groundcover by selling papers on the streets with vendors. In a video interview on the paper’s website, Mayor Hieftje praised Groundcover as a “good read,” saying, “Some people go home and watch Fox News, or they watch CNN, but you can learn things in Groundcover that you’d never see there.”

In the coming years, Susan Beckett looks to keep expanding Groundcover’s reach beyond its current hot spots in Ann Arbor and downtown Ypsilanti to nearby areas, such as Chelsea, Dexter and Pittsfield Township. A city ordinance in Ann Arbor currently prohibits vendors from selling to vehicular traffic, and Beckett hopes to someday get the ordinance amended so that vendors can perhaps sell at highway exits.

Still, Beckett’s focus will always be on finding ways to better support the disadvantaged people of her city, and for her, the sale of a consistently intriguing journalistic product seems the best way to do so.