The Augustin is an independent Viennese street newspaper that aims to help less privileged people to lead a self-determined life. In addition to social work, the newspaper also takes a critical look at current political and social issues.
We are on Reinprechtsdorfer Straße, in Vienna’s 5th district. Between an ice cream parlour and an outlet store there is an unremarkable grey iron door. When you open it, a small courtyard opens up with plants, parked bicycles and various seating options. A sign welcomes us with “Cheers at Augustin”.
The newspaper Augustin started in 1995 as a project between social workers and journalists. It was based on international examples, such as “the Big Issue” from London with the goal to set up something similar in Vienna. The aim was to help people excluded from the labour market by selling the Augustin paper on the street, to ease their hardship, but also to offer new social contacts and to help them regain a sense of direction and control in their lives.
The first newspapers were produced on a voluntary basis. The distribution point at that time was a Salvation Army station. It took a while at first before people found out about Augustin, therefore, the initiators went through all day centres and homeless centres to draw attention to Augustin and the possibility of joining. And over the years it has become more and more professional. Today Augustin counts 12 permanent employees, consisting social workers, editors, one bookkeeper, a TV & radio editor, a graphic designer and one person for public relations. Additionally, 40-50 freelancers provide extra content for the Augustin. The newspaper is published every 14 days.
Becoming a vendor for Augustin is very low-threshold, as there are no criteria to join. Vendors are usually made up of homeless persons, long term unemployed people and asylum seekers. After admission, people are trained before they are authorised to act as salespersons. Before the vendors can sell the newspapers, they have to buy copies from Augustin for a unit price of 1.25€. Then they can sell them for €2.5 on the street, in public places or in bars and keep the remaining €1.25 as their pay. The sale of the Augustin newspaper is not meant to be the sole income for the vendors, but more as a supplement. This 50/50 share also guarantees that the financing of the project is secured.
Since the beginning, many new initiatives have been added to the newspaper. In 1998 Radio Augustin was inaugurated, in 1999 Strawanzerin, an event calendar was published and in 2000 the project F13, a holiday raising awareness for the marginalised on every Friday the 13th, with different kind of activities all over Vienna was launched. Since 2005 Augustin has its own TV programme called “Augustin TV” on the community channel OKTO.
Keeping a critical eye on neoliberal structures
“We don’t want to be just a nice newspaper, we want to be a critical newspaper.”, explains Claudia Poppe, PR representative and graphic designer at Augustin, who has been part of the team for 22 years already.
Augustin wants inform and entertain the people of the city, but also keep a critical eye on the wealthy and those in power. At the same time Augustin’s goals are to initiate positive changes and to help people in need with an entry threshold as low as possible. We have the claim that we want to look at the neoliberal structures. We don’t want to be just a social project, but a socially critical newspaper.” With the same thought in mind, the journalism professor Fritz Hausjell called the Augustin the media’s social conscience of Vienna.
Remaining financially independent in difficult times
In order to remain critical, financial independence is very important to Augustin. “Right now we can see what it means to be financially dependent. Unpopular projects are simply cut off from public funds”, says Poppe. Augustin finances about 60 % of its work through newspaper sales, about 30 % through monthly supporter donations and about 10 % through advertisements, calendar and T-shirt sales. Although the Covid-19 pandemic hit Augustin hard, they were able to emerge from the crisis due to various efforts such as fundraising appeals, a crowdfunding initiative and digital editions. “And apart from that, it is the solidarity of the Viennese that keeps us going”. The increasing digitalisation poses a challenge for all street newspapers worldwide. As part of the INSP, the International Network of Street Newspapers, Augustin is working on strategies to communicate its content in the digital age to help people in need to help themselves.
Self-determination as the key
Augustin is meant to motivate those who find themselves in a vulnerable position to help themselves. There is no obligation for the vendors to enter the regular labour market at some point. Self-determination is important. And that’s how Augustin differs from many social work organisations. In its relatively small day centre, there is room for about 10-12 people to sit. Additionally, there is a computer room for four people where vendors can do research on the internet. Every Monday, Augustin offers legal counselling for their vendors. Apart from that, there is also the editorial office in the building where vendors can find a private place to talk about problems with a social worker. In order to give them a sense of self-determination and to enable them to make new contacts, Augustin has set up various projects for its vendors, such as the singing choir “Stimmgewitter Augustin“, a theatre group, a football and table tennis team, they offer German lessons, computer courses, and even a story telling workshop. Claudia explains why those activities are so important: “Beside the editorial content, our newspapers are always filled with stories from our sellers. These projects that we offer only for our sellers are about giving them the opportunity to be perceived differently, to increase their self-esteem and for them to discover something new.”
The situation of the less privileged
After almost three decades of Augustin, have there been improvements for the situation of less privileged people in Vienna? According to Claudia there have been changes, but not ultimately for the best. For Austrians, there have been improvements with the introduction of the minimum income, also the increase of day centres and emergency sleeping facilities were a step in the right direction. But the actual goal of providing housing for all is still a long way off, especially for non-Austrians. “Because asylum seekers are not entitled to minimum income, there was a sudden increase in people wanting to sell newspapers for us in 2007/2008. Unfortunately, the city can only handle a certain number of vendors and we had to impose an admission stop for the first time.” In the meantime, the situation has eased somewhat, and Augustin is accepting new salespersons again. Despite the minimum income, many are still dependent on support and continue to sell newspapers for Augustin. “There is an international approach called ’Housing First’, which is about providing people with a place to live first and then dealing with all the other problems. And that is basically what should be implemented and what still does not work. To put it bluntly: the utopia would be that there would be no need for the Augustin. Only then could I claim that something has evolved.”
An integral part of Vienna
Augustin’s important role in Vienna is undisputed. Its vendors have become an essential part of the cityscape. Some vendors have even achieved an almost iconic status. For example, a short film was made about the vendor Gerri (Auf da Stroßn). Above all, Augustin offers the sellers a mouthpiece to tell their stories from their own lives which in return creates the possibility of more empathy and understanding.
How can you support the Augustin?
Get involved: In addition to buying the newspaper, it is important that you actually take it with you. This is the only way to guarantee that half of the sales price goes to Augustin. There are also various other ways to support the newspaper. If you would also like to be a fan of Augustin, click here for more information.
Interview by David Schermann.