Paul McNamee is the Editor of The Big Issue, a magazine based in the UK that is sold by homeless and long-term unemployed people, where vendors buy copies for £1.25 and sell for £2.50. Paul sat down with me to discuss the magazine, its recent redesign, its role online and the challenges of a digital society. See all of Paul’s recommendations.
What’s the background of The Big Issue? What are the central principles that it stands for?
I’ll go back to the start. The Big Issue was established in 1991 by John Bird and Gordon Roddick. Because of the huge increase in street homelessness they wanted to come up with something that could deal with that problem. Their idea was to allow people who were right at the bottom, who had nothing, to work their way out; to create their own income, to build self respect, gain their identity back and get back into society. The idea, what came to be The Big Issue, is that the vendors buy the magazine from us and they go on to sell them. Every other street paper, and now there’s probably 120 around the world, uses a model that is, if not the same, then very similar. So that’s the overarching background of the magazine. Over the time The Big Issue has existed there have been different incarnations and iterations of the magazine and online. It started in London, then went to Scotland then it went Britain-wide, then international. Even within Britain there were several different editions, it wasn’t until about three years ago that it switched to just one universal edition with one editor and editorial team behind it, which is when I became editor. I should mention there is still an autonomous area in the north west of England that is served by The Big Issue in the North, but we look after all the rest of Britain. In terms of content, we’ve always seen The Big Issue as a magazine that exists outside of the mainstream. It’s sold by people in the street who cannot speak for any kind of establishment, so whether it’s us that ask difficult questions or our readers asking themselves difficult questions it is this outsider perspective that we stand for.
Most magazines are produced according to the demographics they represent. So for example, they’ll say ‘we are a magazine for women in their 50s to mid-60s who enjoy crafts and crosswords’ and so you’ll get a title that works as well as, say, Woman’s Weekly. The Big Issue is a magazine that is broad in its demographic reach. About a year ago it became clear to me that we couldn’t continue to think in terms of these broad silos, trying to be different things to different people all the time. So, rather than representing the magazine in vertical silos we looked at a horizontal approach that appealed to people across different demographics. We realised that one of the key things that kept coming up about our readers was that they had a particular thirst for knowledge. They wanted to know things, and they wanted to be armed with information. This made us think of our reader a little like an autodidact, somebody who has so much thirst for knowledge they want to go get it themselves.
In terms of content, what has this new thinking produced?
Well, with that autodidact in mind we looked for new columnists who pulled themselves up through self-education and who themselves reflected that thirst for knowledge. So we have Damian Barr, who was born on a Motherwell council estate and is now one of the great entertaining journalists around at the moment. We have Robert McLiam Wilson who went to Cambridge University, dropped out of Cambridge and became a really celebrated novelist but then disappeared and became homeless. He then went to Paris and I found him and got him to write a column for us. In fact, his reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was one of the great pieces that has been written about the event. In November last year we launched a redesign. We’ve recalibrated everything at the magazine, and redesigned it, and we’ve brought a thing in new regular piece called Pause where every week we have a column written by somebody who is an expert in something that the reader doesn’t think is for them, but it takes them outside their everyday. It’s a good knowledge, lightly worn. Helen Macdonald, who wrote H is for Hawk, wrote one on how to spot a hawk in the city; Robert Macfarlane wrote one about the lost words of landscapes and how to keep them alive.
I posed as a vendor earlier this year and it’s hard. Until you do it you don’t realise quite how invisible the vendors become and what they have to go through day-to-day to shift a magazine.
The Pause column seems a great example of this idea of crossing boundaries and demographics. But one of the things that I assume is common to readers of The Big Issue is that many of them will live in a city, as that’s where the majority of the vendors do business. Is urban life, and particularly the non-stop lifestyle that comes with it, a catalyst of that feature or any other content?
The city part of that feature isn’t necessary to it, but now you’ve said it I want to claim that! It does certainly come from the idea of mindfulness, although I hate that term as a collective description, but Pause does refer to the need for people to, from time to time, take a break from what occupies them, and what you do to get that break. Some people don’t have the time or the inclination to do yoga but there’s always something that you can do to step out from the daily grind and relieve pressure. And actually, it sounds deceptively simple to put that column together but we have to be bang on to get it right because it’s not necessarily about doing but, and this might sound wanky, it’s about being. Which is why we’ve asked people to look up at the stars and show them how to really read them, or look up in the sky and show them what that particular cloud means. Pause does a job to show us that these things are around us and to give us the tools to allow ourselves to be in that world for a little moment.
What do you think, in general, is the public perception of the magazine? And what has the recent revamp done or is trying to do to change that perception?
Well that is the key question. Regardless that we’ve been going for a quarter of century, regardless of the fact that we are one of the biggest selling weekly magazines in the UK, I think for some people we are still that homeless magazine sold by the homeless. And that is, to a degree, true. We are sold by some people who are homeless or who have had housing issues, and that masks firstly the content and, importantly, the story of the vendor themselves. So that has become a key part of the message of the magazine; every week we have a story about a vendor, and online especially, a lot of our stories are focused on our vendors’ lives. Because of that perception that we are homeless magazine sold by homeless people, we have to break through that prejudice which means that either some people won’t necessarily want to stop or will ask themselves ‘what can he possibly be selling that is of any value to me?’ And we’re doing a good job of breaking those perceptions. I posed as a vendor earlier this year and it’s hard. Until you do it you don’t realise quite how invisible the vendors become and what they have to go through day-to-day to shift a magazine. There’s a hard hard graft to that, especially when there are other things that they could do that aren’t legal. So I have huge admiration and respect for anybody who will use the magazine as a way to make a living. It’s one reason I always encourage readers to take the magazine from the vendor. Buy it, take it, allow the trade to grow.
For us, social media has been a boom. We have appointed a social media editor to help us change perceptions, and getting that right makes a huge difference to shifting the magazine. It helps put the magazine’s cover in people’s faces, so it’s there on their phones and tablets and then they’ll hopefully go find the magazine. It puts some of the content in their faces, they talk about it and then some readers online become advocates for The Big Issue. We’re always going to get some smart arse saying “why don’t they get a real job”, and now we have people online who are going to react to that on behalf of the vendors. So, the link between the print magazine and digital is strong and effective and also genuinely interactive.
We have to deal with the fact that we need to sell on the street, people like the magazine and are inclined to buy, but they won’t necessarily have cash to pay for it.
Is there a way to subscribe to the magazine online?
Yes, you can take out a subscription to the print magazine and get that every week or you can buy a digital version through iTunes, Kindle and so forth.
Does that revenue filter back down to the vendors?
The Big Issue is a social enterprise, and what that means is that profits made through the magazine are reinvested. Those profits go to the charitable arm of the business, The Big Issue Foundation, who work with the vendors and their needs as they come in, whether that’s to help them get bank accounts or help them get particular health care, whatever those needs are the foundation helps them get back into society.
My impression, and I’m sure a lot of the public’s impression, of the magazine is that it is offline first in terms of its focal point – Because of the direct benefit that a sale has for a vendor. That’s a rare challenge in modern publishing where almost everywhere else editors are working hard to get better at digital. Are you are an offline first magazine or is online equally important?
Yes, you’re absolutely right that offline is the focal point. Every week The Big Issue sells over 70,000 magazines in its print format, and considering that a lot of the other street publishing market is for free products, that is quite something. So yes we have to exist as a paper product because that’s how vendors make their money and we’re here to help them do that. That assistance is supplemented, and we’re looking to increase that supplement, through the digital product. Things are good at the moment on the paper side, with the help of our street teams and distribution we are now in the position where vendors are selling more per person than they were this time last year, and since late last year we’ve been looking at a bump upwards in sales. From my perspective the biggest challenge in the near future is a cashless society. We have to deal with the fact that we need to sell on the street, people like the magazine and are inclined to buy, but they won’t necessarily have cash to pay for it. So we need to look at means that allow people to buy the magazine by card or in other ways. We’ve had a couple of successful trials, there’s one particular vendor in London who uses a card reader, and that works for him selling in a well-to-do leafy area in South London but that’s not to say that will work everywhere, and that’s not to say that all vendors will want to take card payments or that people will want to pay that way. So this is the next challenge we’ll be working our way around.
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