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October 6, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:39am

Editor interview: Post-pandemic Big Issue pivots to digital, editorial training and campaigning

By Charlotte Tobitt

The Big Issue has emerged from the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown period with a new post-pandemic focus on digital and plans to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds get into journalism.

Paul McNamee, the Big Issue’s editor of ten years, said the magazine faced a difficult “period of reflection” during the pandemic which forced it to ask “who we are, what we are for, who we are for”.

This reflection has in part led to an editorial programme now hiring four 16 to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit to write for the brand and get training, thus opening up the industry to aspiring journalists who may feel excluded.

‘It was fly or fail’

Big Issue vendors stopped selling the magazine on the streets on 20 March last year for the first time as Covid-19 cases rapidly rose. They returned in June but continued to be affected by changing lockdown restrictions and, even now, reduced footfall in city and town centres.

The Big Issue was forced to urgently appeal for subscriptions – previously a tiny part of the business – and quickly reached 10,000. It is currently on just under that number as some readers have returned to buy from their local vendors. The title also pivoted to sell copies in retail stores for the first time in its almost 30-year history.

According to ABC the Big Issue had an average weekly UK circulation of 77,630 in 2020, flat year on year.

McNamee (pictured) told Press Gazette this period was a “real crossroads” for the brand: “It was either fly or fail.” He said that rather than letting its 28 years of operation go to waste,  “we were going to find a new way to operate”.

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He said the team had to think about “how do we become a good organisation for the future to make sure that we serve the people that we need to serve?

“Also, for me as an editor, it made me look at the magazine, it made us look online, it made us look at the output.”

A much bigger focus on digital followed. Previously the Big Issue had an online presence but this was very much secondary to the magazine, which is the core of the business as it directly supports the vendors who buy it for half the cover price and sell it on.

Some of the financial backing that came in during the pandemic was specifically given to develop the digital offering and digital editor Alastair Reid, former managing editor of anti-misinformation organisation First Draft News, and digital producer Laura Kelly were appointed last September. The digital team is now about to grow into double figures.

McNamee said the aim is for the recently redesigned Big Issue website to become the “place of first choice” for activism, housing, employment, environment and social justice news and analysis, adding: “Clearly, they are broad subjects but they allow us to craft a viewpoint from a unique Big Issue perspective.” The website will also continue to amplify the type of cultural content the magazine is known for.

Taking digital more seriously and doing it more strategically was essential, McNamee said, in part, “in case this all [the pandemic] happened again because we couldn’t rely on goodwill of people – we had to find a different way to support the business”.

He added: “…in order to be sustainable in a contemporary setting we had to find a way to be able to make money through digital so that we could then help feed that back into vendors.”

‘Lifeline’ for breaking into journalism

Part of the digital growth includes the new Breakthrough talent and training programme for 16 to 24-year-olds not in work and on Universal Credit.

The scheme, initially planned to last six months, will pay four young people the London living wage thanks to the Government Kickstart apprentice scheme and some of the lockdown financial backing.

The group will create content for the website and magazine around issues such as homelessness, diversity and climate change and receive training around digital, social, video, audio, design and writing skills.

McNamee said he had wanted to create a scheme offering opportunities to disadvantaged aspiring journalists when he was chairman of the Professional Publishers Association in Scotland in 2017 and 2018 but that he could not persuade enough publishers to provide financial backing.

“It’s really important because when I started – I didn’t come from any privilege, I come from a very working-class background – but when I started… you could get money for your stories and get money for shifts pretty quickly. There was no sense that you had to work and do a whole load of stuff free. So it was important to me that we found a way to pay people.”

The Big Issue has hired Tufayel Ahmed, a former Newsweek senior editor and news editor at Pink News who has campaigned to improve diversity in journalism, to run the scheme as Breakthrough editorial programme manager.

Ahmed said: “At a time of such great uncertainty for young people, it is fitting that The Big Issue, which has long stood for supporting the most vulnerable in our society, has launched a talent and training programme as a lifeline for those looking to break into journalism.”

[Read more: Diversify newsroom campaigner says jobs go to privileged white colleagues who don’t need to apply]

The Big Issue, a social enterprise, hopes to grow the training scheme beyond editorial to other parts of the business in future.

The Big Issue marked its 30th anniversary last month and McNamee said he had reflected on whether it was a failure that the magazine still existed. Founder John Bird had always said he hoped for a time when it would not be needed.

McNamee said: “I suppose you could argue that to a degree it is a failure because there’s still huge poverty, there’s still huge homelessness and in some places it’s growing, but that doesn’t mean that it’s down to us, we have done what we can to fix the situation.

“We put staggering amounts of money into the pockets of the least well off in Britain over 30 years. We’re not a charity, we’re a social business, but that’s what we have been able to do and that’s been our function.”

His concerns about challenges facing the most vulnerable in society post-pandemic are summed up by the Big Issue’s Stop Mass Homelessness campaign highlighting the end of the £20 Universal Credit uplift, the furlough scheme and Covid-19 laws to prevent mass evictions and repossessions all coming at the same time as rising gas prices.

McNamee said: “I think as an organisation and as a magazine we will become more vocal perhaps than we have been before.”

Picture: The Big Issue

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