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Seattle's Real Change newspaper goes digital

SEATTLE -- Real Change, Seattle's non-profit street newspaper sold by vendors described as homeless or "of meager means," is going digital.

No more excuses by passers by claiming not to have cash in their pocket to buy the $2 weekly paper. They now can use their smartphone to download digital version of the paper that focuses on social justice issues.

Users launch the Real Change app and scan a QR code on the vendors badge. A credit card associated with the app will be charged $2.99 and that week's edition of the paper will be downloaded directly onto the phone.

"It's a little bit easy for me," said Sharon Jones, a Real Change street seller who works 5th Avenue near Top Pot Donuts in downtown Seattle. " I have customers who come by and tell me they don't have cash and I throw this digital code on them".

But the app offers more than a convenient way to pay for the paper, it also reduces the risk of vendors losing money. Each vendor must buy copies of the paper for 60 cents each before they can hit the streets and sell them for $2. If the vendors don't sell all their papers, they eat the 60 cents for each paper that goes unsold. The app eliminates that risk.

"I will get paid the next day, it will come through on my account," said longtime Real Change vendor Shelly Cohen, who works the QFC near Northgate Mall. "I can either take the money or I can apply it to papers to purchase them or at a later date."

Vendors get $1.49 for each digital copy sold.

"That's a huge advantage, they are not taking any risk any more," said Real Change Managing Director Alan Preston. "With a digital copy, it's the reward without the risk".

The app was the brainchild of a Google software engineer who was volunteering at the newspaper's Pioneer Square offices. Preston said he's excited about the possibilities it represents. So are street newspapers across the world.

"We been asked to present this idea to an international group of street papers having their convention in June here in Seattle," said Jill Woelfer, a Google user experience researcher.

Woelfer says the challenge was making the interaction easy for everyone one.

"Easy, so the vendors don't have to do a lot of explaining and the person buying the paper doesn't have to know a lot about how their phone works," said Woelfer. "It's a pretty simple process".

Representatives from Google and Real Change acknowledge the hesitancy of someone not wanting to give their credit card information to a homeless person selling a newspaper. They say that's why they made the credit card information part of the in-app purchase process. The vendor never sees a credit card.

"They are doing is literally scanning the vendors badge, there's no exchange of personal information and its as secure any transaction can be," said Preston.

Currently, the free Real Change app is available only for Android on the Google Play Store. A IOS version for iPhone is expected to be released shortly.

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