The Medium and the Message

Todd Nesbitt

Chair of Communication and Mass Media

I finally went to see Petr yesterday. I’ve been meaning to for ages, but since the main UNYP building moved to the new address I find it hard to get down to see him, as his workplace is no longer on my route to the office.

Excuses, excuses.  Working in the same neighbourhood for the last couple of years, I usually went to see him every fortnight. Petr is one of the hardest working people I know, with one of the hardest jobs I know of. The work he does evokes a whole range of emotions in me. It makes me angry, gives me hope, disappoints me, frustrates me, saddens me. But regardless of these emotions it also inspires me, and makes me more committed to doing a tiny bit to help make the world a better place.

Petr sells a magazine calledNový Prostor in the vestibule of the I.P. Pavlova metro station. Nový Prostor is a fortnightly magazine sold by men and women in distress, often homeless, facing social exclusion. In the Czech Republic around 200 vendors sell the magazine, mostly in Prague and Brno.  It provides an opportunity for those living in poverty, in the best case serving as a stepping stone back into mainstream society. The system functions on a social enterprise and self-help model, in which vendors become micro-entrepreneurs, purchasing the magazine up front for 50% of the cover price (25 crowns), being their own boss, and making their own living through selling it.

Nový Prostor is a member of the International Network of Street Papers, which includes over 110 papers in 35 countries, providing over 14,000 people with opportunity, and 6,000,000 readers with content. Each paper is different, has its own history, and direction. The famous ‘Big Issue’ of the United Kingdom, for example, uses a more mainstream approach, featuring stories and interviews with well-known public features. In, Ljubljana staff and volunteers of the local street paper Kralji ulice take their work a step further, training vendors to write for the magazine themselves. Nový Prostor keeps away from the typical themes and stereotypical approaches of the mainstream media, and strives for an alternative, independent view on issues in society, often times through bringing attention to people working for positive change in society, as opposed to just those who profit from it. In a highly commercialized media market, where the print media is almost exclusively owned by oligarchs or foreign conglomerates in the pursuit of profit, Nový Prostor has become for many an oasis of rational public discussion.

 

Selling a street paper is no easy job. When I went to buy the magazine from Petr yesterday at 8:30 on my way to work it was -1.5 degrees on the street, down in the metro I estimate at least 2 degrees less. He is there all day in the freezing cold, quietly offering the magazine to passersby. A couple of times I have paused to observe him at work while heading to the metro.  Each time I realize how incredibly psychologically demanding this work is. Not just the standing for long hours in freezing temperatures, but rather the crushing emptiness that comes from the many thousands of people passing by you, ignoring you, bumping into you and swearing under their breath as they rush to their next destination, from the hearing shouts of, ‘get a job!’, and increasingly, being the target of a beating by right wing extremists. Two weeks ago a female vender had her magazines snatched from her hands by an aggressor who set them on fire in front of her. No easy job indeed.

 

When I saw Petr on that cold Tuesday he was his regular self. Greeting me after a long absence, (‘Mr. Doctor, it’s been a long time!), refusing as usual to accept a few crowns extra, eager to tell me what is in the current issue, and what will be in the upcoming one. There is no sense of charity in our relationship, just a friendly man doing his work, and another who appreciates just how hard this work is. This month his ‘employer’ marks 15 years of helping people in difficult situations get back on their feet. I feel very privileged to know people the people dedicated to this important venture, from the editors, to the contributors, to the vendors across the country, and encourage all to share in this experience. The next time you see someone selling Nový Prostor - or a similar street paper in Athens, New York or other countries, be aware that these people are essentially hard-working small business people, dedicated to helping themselves get out of difficult life situations. As the saying goes: looking for a hand up - not a hand out.

 

The author is chair of the department of Communication and Mass Media at UNYP, and serves on the editorial board of Nový Prostor with the sociologist Prof. Alena Wagnerová, and philosopher Prof. Václav Bělohradský.

 The Medium and the Message  The Medium and the Message

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