In this week's episode of The Onlinification Pod, I spoke to Sarah Britz, CEO and editor-in-chief of Faktum, Sweden's biggest street newspaper. During our discussion, we spoke about Faktum's business model, the role the paper plays in the lives of the people who sell it, and the challenges of selling a print product in an online world.
Faktum is a common sight on the street in many of Sweden's cities. It's a recognised quality magazine, usually featuring a famous person on the cover and with a range of interviews and investigative articles on the inside. What sets Faktum aside from other magazines are the people who sell it, who live in homelessness, poverty or social exclusion. For the sellers, Faktum provides an income and a real job, not just a handout. They buy their own copies of the magazine for 40 kronor each and sell it on the street for 80 kronor, keeping the profit for themselves.
It's a business model that has been tried and tested elsewhere, most notably by The Big Issue in the UK, and one that makes a real difference in the lives of the sellers. As Faktum describes it, "for some, selling Faktum is a step towards an ordered life. For others, it's a way of staying afloat. Whatever their reasons, selling Faktum is about more than just dollars and cents - it means taking responsibility, planning the day, creating routines and developing a social network."
Zooma has supported Faktum for a while, so I took the chance to contact Sarah and ask her to join the podcast. We spoke about Faktum's business and its unexpected similarities to more 'mainstream' companies, and discussed how the internet impacts Faktum's important journalism. When the most important business goal is selling a physical newspaper on the street, how can you build an audience online without 'stealing' readers from the sellers? Listen to the episode and find out - you can find this episode on the podcast platform of your choice using the links below. There's also a full transcription of our discussion further down.
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Doug Bolton: Hello Sarah Britz, and welcome to The Onlinification Pod. How are you?
Sarah Britz: I'm fine, thank you. How are you?
DB: I'm not bad at all. You are the VD... VD? That was a bit Swenglish, wasn't it? The CEO and the editor-in-chief of Faktum, which is, I think we could say, Sweden's leading street newspaper. So maybe just to start off with, you could tell a bit about what Faktum is and what you do, and what a street newspaper is as well, for people who don't know.
SB: Faktum is, as we said, the largest street paper in Sweden. But street papers exist all over the world, and we are a community now of hundreds of street papers around the world, in all all big countries and continents. And basically it's the same business model everywhere, and that is that we do a paper and that is sold on the street by poor people and homeless people. They buy it from us for an amount, in Sweden it's 40 Swedish crowns, and sell it for the double price. And then they keep 40 Swedish crowns, so they keep the difference. And I think the first street paper was established in New York in 1994, 1991, I think. And the street paper everybody knows about, I think is The Big Issue in London. Everybody has seen the London one. And Big Issue exists also in Australia, Japan, South Africa, and Faktum was established here in Gothenburg in 2001. So we've been on the street for over 20 years, and we are approximately 300 vendors on the street in one year. And the picture on the street have changed since Faktum started. When they started, it was a lot of rough sleepers in Gothenburg and it was the, I would say, the picture of a homeless man sleeping on a bench, eating soup at a soup cafe or something. But both homelessness and poverty have changed since that. So now we have a lot of sellers from other countries, poor EU migrants from especially Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia. But we don't care about where you come from. We care about giving people the opportunity to create an income and create a situation to create themselves a better life. It's a hand up instead of a hand out. As they say in London, it's 'helped self-help'.
DB: Exactly. And you mentioned that last time we spoke that, sometimes people have misconceptions about Faktum and similar organizations, that it's kind of a charity. But I mean, the people who sell Faktum buy it with their own money, and then they go on and sell it, and that's just like any other business, I guess.
SB: I don't know the English word for it, but in Swedish, if I translate it directly from Swedish, it's 'risk capitalists' (venture capitalists). They are investing their own money, so they have to plan their selling on the street. They have to plan their day; they have to take care of the paper. They have to also before they get their ID, their Faktum ID, they have to to write under an agreement, a code of conduct on the street because they are representing Faktum and our organization. So we don't do charity. This is a business both for the vendors and for us. Our business is based on support from companies and from the selling on the streets and ads. So we don't have any contribution from Gothenburg City or any other city, or the state of Sweden. So we stand for ourselves and we have to be independent to drive our independent journalism as well.
DB: And you said there are around 300 sellers in Sweden at the moment. Where are they based? Is it across the whole country?
SB: No, there is another street paper in Stockholm, Situation Stockholm. And we have this code of conduct, you don't sell the paper if they already exists a street paper in this geographic spot. So we have Karlstad and Värmland, and we have Västra Götaland, Gothenburg, down in Halland, and Skåne and Småland, Växjö, Kristianstad, Malmö. And our office, we have offices in Gothenburg, Karlstad, Helsingborg and Malmö, where we have employed people that sell the paper to the vendors. In the other cities we cooperate with other organizations that sell the papers for us and have an amount of of distribution costs we pay them. So it's a lot of cooperation with other organizations as well. But we are very independent. We have to be, we don't belong to another organization, even if we try to to work for the same goal, that poor people should have a situation that they can change their lives.
DB: Yep. And you mentioned before how the type of homelessness and poverty has changed over the years and, maybe it is a different kind of person selling now as it was when you started. But I was just thinking, whenever you turn on the news now, it's inflation and the cost of living and energy prices and stuff, which is creating issues for everyone, really. But for the people who sell Faktum, what kind of impact is that having on them?
SB: It's a great impact because it's more difficult to sell the paper on the street. And that's the main reason for being a vendor. And so during the pandemic, we saw also change of of the activity on the streets and a decline in the sales. But the pandemic, we knew that one day it would over. And we also knew that for the buyers on the street, they got a better economy because people couldn't travel and couldn't go to fancy restaurants. But now, the high inflation affects all of us and we don't know when this ends. So it's a pretty tough situation for all of the vendors, I could say. And we don't know how it will be in July or September or the end of 2023. So it's a bit scary. But as the vendors always say, everything will be all right. They are tough people and they've been through crises before. It's mostly we who worry. I can't say that they are comforting us, but they are cool. They know, they are survivors. I mean, they are the most brave people I know, being a seller on the street selling something when homelessness and poverty is a big stigma. I mean, these people, you just have to admire them.
DB: Speaking of the sellers, I'm sure people listening will have bought copies and seen Faktum sellers and often it's the same person in the same place. Whenever I go to the office at Zooma, I always walk past the same guy in the station in Gothenburg. How does that work with getting your pitch? Is that assigned by Faktum, or?
SB: Yeah, when the when the vendors get their Faktum ID, they get the spot and they, they own the spot. I mean, they don't own the place, but they have the spot they had to take care of and they have this code of conduct to take care of the spot. But they can also switch places when one seller is sick or not active for a while. Then we try to put another vendor there. So the people always know that this is a place where where you can buy a Faktum. Many of the vendors do have a small community, they have their own customers, they are part of the society in a way, in the middle of the big cities in Malmö and Gothenburg. And there it's more difficult to sell Faktum, I mean, in Nordstan, for example, the stress and people just walk by. They are, people are going from point A to point B, and they don't have time to stop and buy. But in Alingsås, maybe, they know the vendor, they can talk to him or her and they have a relationship.
DB: Yeah exactly, I was on Faktum's website, and you have a lot of profiles of sellers and kind of their stories and their backgrounds and stuff, and a lot of them talk about, you know, they have their circle of customers and it's kind of the social side, people come to them kind of like they would go to a therapist, they talk things over and they kind of become...
SB: Or like the hairdresser!
DB: Yeah, a little bit, Yeah. Yeah. You mentioned before the stigma around homelessness, are there any other kind of misconceptions about either Faktum or just kind of homelessness and people who are homeless in general?
SB: So I think most the most common misconception about Faktum and the vendors, I talked to the vendors last week about this, and it's that people don't know that they buy the paper to sell it to on the street. They think they get it for free. And I had, it's not funny, but the vendor laughed about it. He was standing outside a store selling Faktum and he had a cup of coffee in his hand the same time, and a person passed him and put some money in his coffee, in his cup. And for him it was, "Oh well, my money was washed, now I have some clean money." But at the same time, they don't want to be be taken for beggars. In their eyes they work, they have a job, they have a mission, they are representatives for Faktum. And they are very proud that they buy the paper and can't give it back to us. They have to plan their working time, the time they get here, say hello, have a coffee, and they take their magazines and go out to work. So I think that's the one misconception. Another misconception, I think, is that you have to be a drug addict or that you have to be homeless.
SB: You don't have to be homeless to sell Faktum, we don't care about why you need to do it or want to do it. We have sellers, I'm thinking of one seller in Malmö, a lady who has lived a very, very tough life and has no family and she's totally alone. And she started to sell Faktum four years ago, just because because she wanted to get out and talk to people. So she has her spot and sits there in her wheelchair for 4 hours a day. And she made a lot of friends. And she said it saved her life; she had two or three times tried to commit suicide because of depression and loneliness, and Faktum gave her a life back, she says. So the social aspect surprised me when I started to work at Faktum in 2015, because we always say this is not a social institution. We don't take care of people. There are other organizations that do much better than we do with food and clothes and charity. We are a selling organization, but the social aspect is more than I thought.
DB: I was wondering. I mean, obviously this podcast is usually about different kinds of topics than what we're talking about now. We talk about, business to business marketing and stuff like that. So obviously I need to get something like that in somewhere. But I think it's worth taking up because like I said before, Faktum has a website, and you have these interviews and so on with the vendors and also older articles from the newspaper. But how do you kind of balance as an editor, trying to get that audience online when really it's the actual physical newspaper that's really the important thing? You know, that's kind of the other challenge than other newspaper editors, they know everything is going to be online in the future, but they still have to deal with printing their physical newspaper every day.
SB: It's very difficult. And we talked about it a lot and we're still talking about it. And I don't have a clear answer. But two years ago, three years ago, we had this strict rule that we don't publish editorial content on the website or on social media before the actual issue of Faktum was sold out on the street, because we thought that we took money from the vendor and gave it away for free. But now we are we are changing that attitude because we think that reaching out earlier with our journalism and making a buzz around the journalism and the content is more valuable for the vendor. I don't think they are losing anything or losing any money or anything when we do that. Instead, I think the contrary, we can both gain from it if we are more visible with what we do. And we have a lot of investigating journalism and we have won prizes for it, and been nominated in different competitions. And I think we could do that better, to reach out, to show the audience what we do, because the people who buy Faktum, I think they buy it for different reasons. And we think that most people buy it because they want to think it's charity. They want to support the vendors, support sellers doing good in society. But I think we have a blind spot when it comes to showing the importance of the journalism we're doing. It's a very important journalism that nobody else does. It's not covered in the ordinary newspapers or on the radio or TV. So we have to do that much better. But it's also a question of our money and resources. We don't have the bandwidth yet.
DB: No, no, exactly.
SB: Maybe if we were two, two or three people more, now we are just three journalists working with the content.
DB: Yeah, exactly. It sounds kind of like you use the internet and your social media and stuff as more like a tool to create the kind of buzz and attention that then leads to buying the physical paper.
SB: Yeah, and also, as we spoke about earlier, it changes the attitude to poor people or homeless people; it works against prejudice and works against the fear of addressing a vendor. It's a big step, just going going to a vendor and buying a paper. We know that people can be a bit shy, maybe afraid of what's coming up, maybe people think the vendor is drunk or will behave in a way that affects people negatively. But we try to fix that, the stories about their lives, they're very valuable, we know that.
DB: Yeah. You mentioned something last time we spoke, and we have a thing at Zooma where we say our long term goal is to become obsolete because when all companies are super good at the Internet, then Zooma won't need to exist anymore and that would be great. And it's kind of a similar thing at Faktum, right? If there was suddenly no poverty in the world, then Faktum wouldn't need to exist?
SB: It's the same goal!
DB: But, I suppose that wouldn't be so bad really, in the in the grand scheme of things.
SB: Yeah. I would be glad to close down the, the whole business and fire myself.. But I think when you speak of homelessness today, you can't see the homeless people today. I mean there's 600 homeless children in Gothenburg. We don't see them. And it's hardly, it's not a political question as well. And I don't think people know about it. And the group of homeless people who are increasing is mothers and children who live not legally in Sweden, but they do have the right to be here because they came as refugees five years ago, but they are poor and not educated and they have no money and they can't afford living. So when you speak about homelessness, it's social homelessness and structural homelessness. And structural homelessness is where people don't have the money to to live anywhere. And this group is growing.
DB: And it's like you said, I think when people think of a homeless person, they think maybe of an older man, probably in a sleeping bag, sleeping actually on the street. And that's, certainly when I lived in Gothenburg, not such a common sight, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
SB: It's very common in the UK, and in the US. I don't know if you talk about it that way in England, but in the US you talk about 'white man eating' pictures. They use a picture of a white man with a beard eating in a soup kitchen, that's the most common picture you have of homeless man. But in Gothenburg there are women with children who are homeless in the suburbs and we don't see them. So it's a problem just that you don't see them and don't talk about them. They are completely invisible. So I refuse to publish 'white man eating' pictures, in Faktum, because if you don't see the problem, you can't do anything about it.
DB: So now, just at the start of 2023, what do you have going on at Faktum at the moment? You know, over the next year or so, because it's not just the the physical newspaper that you produce, obviously.
SB: No. We've seen, when it comes to selling that last year that the paper declined a bit, but we do sell a lot of the calendar and we sell it still for a couple of years. It's very beautiful, and it hangs on several restaurants and you can buy it there. But we also have this, I don't know the English word, 'sällskapsspel'?
DB: Like a board game?
SB: Yeah. And it's very funny, I talked to Christian at distribution just an hour ago and he said he's been selling 200 of the games today. And it's a very funny thing because we have a pod that is called Faktum Frågar, Faktum Asks, and the question come from the vendors themselves. And it's high and low, it's very uncensored and very funny questions. And in the pod we ask famous people these questions, and this game has the same questions. And there are no rules, it's just questions, and you can play it with someone you like or dislike. We tested it at a party we had at the office, and you get into discussions you have never been in before. So I think we can sell that together with the paper, there's big interest on the street for that, and also for our bags. So we try to produce these, what do we say, 'co-products' for the paper and then sell it together with the paper. And then we can be sure that the vendor gets their income from the street. So we try to be creative with these co-products, and we still hope that the paper will sell on the street, that people will see that our business model is very good. Because it helps people activate themselves, be socialized, and also get an income, and get self-confidence, which is the most important thing to change your life. It's that you believe in yourself.
DB: Great. Well, thank you, Sarah, for joining today. It was good to speak to you. And I guess anyone who's listening should buy a copy of Faktum next time they see it on the street.
SB: I really hope so. Thanks for having me.