Unpacking The Box I Took Home from My Last "Real Job"

Street Justice Newsletter: Vol 2, Edition 90 (7/20/2020)

NOTE: Believing Enough in This Effort to Unpack The Boxes I Took Home from My Last "Real Job"

This weekend, I took the last step to fully invest emotionally in the Street Justice news non-profit I’ve been writing about here for a month. I unpacked the two boxes I took home from my last “real job” in March 2018. They sat on a shelf for two years, ready to be taken back into a new job that year — when I was job searching full-time — and over the last 20 months of Street Justice publishing.

Today, I was ready to fully believe that I’m not going back. I don’t want to. I won’t have to. Theses cartons have meaning for an organization freak. My office is here and I need my tools (e.g., 96-color Crayola crayon lazy Suzan). I’m letting go of all my doubts. Full speed ahead with two dozen volunteers and hundreds of subscribers reaching an audience of thousands. Street Justice is going to succeed. Shipping containers make great offices and now there’s room for a second desk when we hire a second staffer.

I’m sorry for the infrequent, irregular publishing of reports in the last few weeks. This past week, especially, and the last month has involved a lot of meetings, thinking, and writing about was Street Justice is and how it differs from other (local) news that also needs investment and volunteer support.

David Alpert, Greater Greater Washington Founder, Stepping Down

David Alpert, founder and Executive Director of Greater Greater Washington (GGWash), announced Monday that he will be stepping down from his non-profit news and advocacy organization. I’ve been trying to set up a call with him for a few weeks. He took a blog, made it into a non-profit, and recruited a staff of ten supported by leadership and mobilization of hundreds of volunteers. I want to do the same with Street Justice. Hopefully, we can talk soon. He said this week to me that June had been really busy for him. No wonder! Announcements like these take a lot of prep.

I’m building something different than David, but he’s why it’s possible. He and all the other GGWash volunteers who made that organization a key regional stakeholder and urbanism evangelist for the masses.

What is Street Justice?

Street Justice is a non-profit news organization spotlighting the policies and people that govern and change public spaces. We include, inform, and equip stakeholders with the least power to improve their community. Public spaces include streets, tunnels, bridges, waterways, airports, playgrounds, schools, libraries, trails, parks, recreation centers, and transit.

Gordon Chaffin started Street Justice in December 2018 to create inclusive journalism about neighborhood-level problems with the goal of including more people of less privilege, creating content that reached them, and to equip them to get involved in arcane but important local civics decision making. You know that phrase “Nothing about us, without us?” As a news organization, we are storytellers, but also a tools-provider to the “us” who may already be advocates and the many more who don't know yet how to change things but want things to change.

Our ambition is to create a small, non-profit newsroom that finds, broadcasts, and mobilizes informed stakeholder citizens into the most obscure rooms where people to make decisions affecting others. Street Justice is not a partisan or ideological advocacy organization. But, we do advocate for — and make possible — greater inclusion.

We believe this is possible and necessary. Hundreds of subscribers have pledged money and increased their donations over 19 months of publishing. They’ve donated, spread word of mouth, linked to our work in their bigger platforms with larger audiences. They’ve told us that they believe in the need for a new kind of local journalism.

How It Was Possible to Start Street Justice

Greater Greater Washington is the reason Street Justice exists, as well as many other factors. At GGWash transitions and Street Justice formalizes as a non-profit, I am — more than anything — grateful. I want to reflect on the circumstance that made this possible for me.

Since recruiting the first few subscribers in December 2018, my experience with Street Justice has followed a three-phase timeline:

Phase One | Do the Job I Want | Dec 2018 - April 2019

I had been job searching full-time for 9 months and had no luck. I wasn’t getting journalism job interviews in part because of my non-traditional career history. It was hard to sell my abilities as a local journalist, but I knew that is what I wanted to be. I knew had I had the skills, the passion — and I had some savings. So, I just started to do the job I wanted to do: daily reporting and publishing via a subscription newsletter.

Phase Two | There’s a Niche Here; Can it Pay Bills? | April 2019 - May 2020

After several months of 6 stories per week, we’d broken a big story: the ANC 3C Check Fraud story (Part 1 | Part 2). From sources willing to collaborate and readers subscribing after the DC Line and 730DC linked to and promoted our work. It was clear that Street Justice had a committed — if small — audience. There was a permanent place for Street Justice in the local DC news landscape. We published for free for two months and added a paywall in early March. People signed on for the paid subscriptions in the dozens, then hundreds.

The big question in phase two wasn’t whether Street Justice should exist, but if it could pay all of my bills once I ran out of savings. I started dog walking as a gig economy worker on Rover and pulled back on the Street Justice publishing frequency when I struggled to do daily reports and 5-8 dog walks per weekday. I got a small business loan and began pitching public meeting livestreaming services. ANC 1C (Adams Morgan) became my first A/V client, but that service didn’t receive much interest until COVID-19 hit and people realized we’re likely headed to years of virtual meetings vs. weeks of it.

Phase Three | A Firm Foundation Needed: Get Bigger and Formalize in order to Survive | May 2020 - Present

You all know most of this phase three: Street Justice should exist, but doing it with gig economy side jobs isn’t sustainable and the media world with more traditional funding models are laying journalists off in droves. Street Justice doesn’t accomplish its mission by being bought and turned into a column for WaPost (a la Capital Weather Gang or Wonkblog). Street Justice isn’t a WAMU segment; we should do something better than the local NPR affiliate.

There are lots of unanswered questions, but the counter-intuitive upshot is that we need to bring in many more people as volunteers and formalize into a non-profit, accessing those funding sources, and hiring more staff. It’ll be easier to get to a payroll of five than survive on my own while doing something better than incumbent news players.

Who and What Made Street Justice Possible

Street Justice will succeed thanks to my hard work and financial contributions, but there are a series of people and events subject to very low amounts of my control.

  • My parents. For obvious reasons. But, also for being supportive of

  • Jake Williams, Teddy Downey, and Trevor Baine hired me in 2015 to be a researcher and a small, niche industry publication called The Capitol Forum. They’re the first people to show me the power of journalism as an authority-questioner. They taught me how critical antitrust and consumer protection are for a socially just economy.

  • David Alpert, Julie Strupp, Sarah Guidi, and Matt Friedman of Greater Greater Washington hired me as a volunteer social media coordinator in 2017 and write for them in 2018. That experience connected me with the urbanist community who were early champions of Street Justice.

  • A member of my family received an unexpected inheritance from a different family member. They passed a large portion of that onto me. It was an incredibly generous and loving move. That money become the savings/seed investment to start Street Justice. This family member also offered me a small business loan when I needed it last year.

  • Kat Haselkorn, who was someone I hired as a matchmaker in 2017 and became a friend, suggested I apply for a part-time gig at a now-defunct local news site called DC Commute Times. I saw what they were doing at DC Commute Times and did it much better with Street Justice. Kat also convinced me to try dog walking when I needed a side gig to help pay bills. She hired me to take my first published, credited photo in the WSJ. She’s really the biggest single person to create the idea of Street Justice in my heart. She’s an amazing person and I highly recommend her matchmaking services [Email Kat | Sign Up].

  • Aaron Gordon of the Signal Problems newsletter and Walt Hickey of the Numlock News newsletter both gave me key advice on the start of a paid newsletter before Street Justice launched.

  • Braulio Agnese and Beth Peralta-Reed subscribed for money in the first week we had sign-ups — before we’d published a single edition. Several dozen subscribed before we raised a paywall.

  • COVID-19 has been terrible on many levels for many people, but it’s been a net benefit for Street Justice. I had enough money to pay April rent, but didn’t for May, June, July, August — and maybe I’ll have enough for September. My landlord waived utilities during the health emergency. Street Justice would have failed if not for this pandemic and renter protections. We’re looking at public broadcasts of virtual meetings as a strong growth area.

  • More than a dozen people have signed up for lifetime subscriptions. I know that’s a large expense — a “clear it with your life partner” — conversation.

  • The hundreds of subscribers who pledged money, some of them increasing their pledge amount twice or even three times. The thousands of free-sign up subscribers who continue to read that weekly digest edition.

Thank you to everyone on this list and so many more. The more Street Justice finds success, the more I realize it was because of amazing supporters and — honestly — the universe being randomly generous to me in this venue. I’ve worked insane, unhealthy hours the past two years and there’s a while more I’ll need to do so. But, I want y’all know I understand how this is a group effort.

DISCLAIMER: Street Justice is subjective journalism. We produce factually accurate, thoroughly reported content. We write with a personal and opinionated voice, contrary to “view from nowhere” journalism that produces an unrealistically symmetrical portrayal of matters in dispute. Where there are power dynamics, Street Justice applies greater scrutiny to agents and stakeholders with greater privilege and more questionable motives.