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November 17, 2014updated 24 Nov 2014 4:46pm

Relaunched Big Issue takes on the free titles: ‘Rather than belly-ache, we need to work harder’

By William Turvill

Since the 2007 launch of Shortlist magazine, The Big Issue has seen its circulation drop from an average of 174,770 to 82,329 in 2013 as its vendors have had to compete with an increasing number of free newspaper and magazine distributors.

In this period, Time Out has also gone free – and seen its circulation rise from 52,189 in the first half of 2012 to 307,767 this year – and Shortlist Media has launched Stylist magazine.

Between them, these three free titles along with Metro and Sport magazine have a combined circulation (according to their latest ABCs) of 2,929,049. In addition, the Evening Standard and City AM in London have circulations of 883,096 and 115,087 respectively. In the years 2006 to 2008 two free daily newspapers for London also came and went (Thelondonpaper and London Lite).

But Big Issue editor Paul McNamee (pictured, right), who describes Shortlist as a "really, really good" magazine, says he won't complain.

"From our perspective, rather than belly-ache, we say: right, we really need to work harder [for] people who are willing to give us their money."

On the rise of free titles, McNamee added: "Obviously it hasn’t helped.

"When the market starts to get crowded the market becomes more difficult.

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"And when people are in a mindset where they get free things they think, well, why if that’s free why should I pay for that one? So that's the challenge."

The Big Issue relaunched last week, leading with an exclusive interview with newly-engaged Benedict Cumberbatch (front cover above).

In addition, the title has appointed a number of new columnists, as well as a business editor, pop reviewer, political correspondent and social media editor.

The magazine costs £2.50, with half the cover price going towards its street vendor. It launched in 1991 and in 2000, before the rise of the free titles, it was selling up to 250,000 copies a week.

Although circulation has gone down in recent years, sales per vendor are said to be higher than they have ever been, and the magazine is looking for ways to improve this, including by providing some sellers with card payment facilities.

McNamee told Press Gazette the magazine has also started a scheme in which it recruits a street vendor on the editorial side of the operation on a six-month contract.

He said the scheme, which will include training, is not intended to "patronise", adding: "They are expected to work."

The Big Issue is currently interviewing for the role and McNamee has been impressed with the standard of applicants.

He hopes the appointment will help the magazine get a new perspective on different subjects, such as politics, and also get more stories from other street vendors.

"Sometimes they might be a little reluctant to tell us everything," he said.

"You get somebody who comes from that environment, they'll know when someone's bullshitting us or they'll know when someone's got a story that we can bring out."

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