Thursday, June 20, 2024

The Rev. Osagyefo Sekou took over Spare Change this month with a cover featuring Princeton University’s Cornel West.

The previous issue under editor Tom Benner.

With a new editor comes an eye-catching change in the look of Spare Change News, and a significant restating of goals, including hints at a major fundraising campaign and staff-writer structure at a paper that has been volunteer-run for two decades.

The Rev. Osagyefo Sekou took over Spare Change this month with a cover featuring Princeton University’s Cornel West in off-center black and white, lowercased headline text over him promising dispatches from the Democratic National Convention and about James Baldwin, welfare, race and liberalism, and diversity and the future of Boston — powerful, serious stuff contrasting with the previous issue’s colorful, boxy cover with heavy type promoting a story about the “Grand champ of women’s boxing.”

“I will push us to look more at questions of race, increase areas around arts and culture and to ensure that we cover news issues,” Sekou said last week, promising Spare Change will increasingly be “a way in which homeless folk can contribute analysis on the contemporary issues of today.”

In making his pitch to the board of directors to take over the officially part-time role as editor, Sekou said he “pushed really hard around those questions” and noted that with a long biography filled with accomplishments and honors in the realms of religion and social justice, “I have a number of colleagues and contacts in social movements I can leverage,” including informal contacts in the Occupy movement. He takes over from journalist Tom Benner, who is heading off to Singapore with his family after making dramatic improvements in social media and to the paper’s website.

The newspaper, based in Harvard Square as part of the Homeless Empowerment Project, is in its 20th year. The shutdown of a street paper in New York makes it the longest continuously published paper in the country founded by and to benefit the homeless with the idea of licensing vendors to buy it for a quarter, sell it for a dollar and keep the proceeds. Sekou — who has been in Boston for about a year and a half — has been sure to school himself on its history.

As a result, he often refers to Spare Change as a magazine.

Format is just the start

The Rev. Osagyefo Sekou moved to Boston from New York about 18 months ago. (Photo: The Rev. Osagyefo Sekou)

“I have a copy of the first issue we ever published, which was more magazine form and style. So on one level in our 20th year I’m doing a bit of a throwback to that original intent,” he said, describing how he purposefully “taught myself how to lay out a magazine.” He goes further in his first letter from the editor, noting that “the original magazine format of Spare Change News, The Crisis Magazine under W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Camus’ Le Combattant and Jean Paul-Sartre’s Le Temps Modernes are touchstones for our new editorial direction.”

(The first, revamped issue coincided exactly with the revamping of the Boston Phoenix alternative weekly newspaper, which merged with the same publisher’s Stuff and returned as a glossy magazine called simply The Phoenix.)

While Sekou said he took suggestions for the new look and feel of the paper from vendors and board members, after years of working with the media, “I just know what is aesthetically pleasing and I want to ensure our magazine had that kind of quality.” After doing initial layout, he relies on graphic designer Brendan Bernard of Somerville for the final look of the pages.

As indicative of a new sophistication as the changes may be, they are still just cosmetic — although with the first Sekou-edited issue described as going black and white to allow for more pages, they signal tradeoffs the project is willing to make.

Sekou has even more in mind.

“We’ll continue to do high-quality stories and improve the quality of our writing, and eventually I’d like to hire,” he said. “We pay a minimal fee to our writers and have about five to seven homeless people who write for us consistently. In an ideal world we hire them as staff writers.”

Although he hopes to implement a staff structure in the next 18 months, he knows it’s a concept that must go through the board and demands a significant increase in fundraising and ad sales. The model in place at the Real Change paper in Seattle suggests the need for a roughly million-dollar budget.

“The board hired me because I wanted to improve both the look and the content,” he said, describing the goal behind the improvements: “Just because it’s a magazine for poor people or homeless folks doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be afforded the dignity they deserve.”