The voice of the streets is worth hearing

'The Big Issue' runs strong campaigns, outsells 'The Economist', owes nothing to market research and, best of all, it's a good read
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Just recently I came to the conclusion that The Big Issue, which I regularly buy on the street, is an excellent magazine which I would rather read than The Economist, The Spectator, The New Statesman or Time Out. It describes itself as "Coming up from the streets" and its reporting lives up to the claim. The Big Issue interviews people who, whether in or out of work, whether living in their own homes or homeless, are struggling to lead decent lives and it illustrates their hopes, their fears and their predicaments. We hear voices rarely recorded by conventional publications.

If I say that the magazine mounts strong campaigns, as it has in recent issues against the careless use of electric shock treatment on mentally ill patients in hospitals, then I am in danger of implying that the magazine is worthy but dull. Not at all. In a recent issue its opening pages ran straight from an A to Z on homelessness to a fashion piece on sunglasses to a feature on the underground author, Q, whose first novel, Deadmeat, was originally sold in serial form around London's clubs.

The Big Issue previews the coming week in music, clubs, film, books, performance, TV and art. It often publishes a half-page of "street poetry". And invariably, on its last editorial page, under the heading "initiative", the magazine gives details of four missing persons, with pictures and mini profiles, and asks readers to support the National Missing Persons' Helpline. I also like The Big Issue for what it isn't. It is neither smart- alec nor sneering.

I am not alone. The magazine's weekly sales have reached 280,000; it thus easily outsells The Economist in the UK (108,000), The Spectator (56,000), The New Statesman (20,000) and Time Out (106,000). It carries consumer advertising, especially from the music industry, and recruitment advertisements from the voluntary sector. Moreover, The Big Issue is profitable. The worldly-wise will say that this is not a normal magazine sold in a conventional way. Indeed not. It is wonderfully peculiar.

It was founded in 1991 to give homeless people the chance to make an income by selling the magazine; it would be for them an alternative to begging. Actually there hasn't been a stranger reason for starting publication since The Daily Telegraph was founded in 1855 in pursuit of a vendetta by a Colonel Sleigh against the Duke of Cambridge, commander-in-chief of the Army and Queen Victoria's cousin. In this case, Gordon Roddick of the Body Shop had seen Street News, a newspaper sold by homeless people in New York, and brought the idea back to London where John Bird turned it into reality.

The nature of the encounter between The Big Issue vendors and their customers is different from, say, buying an evening paper outside a railway station. In the first transaction, emotion is present. As an alternative to begging it works both ways. Undoubtedly, for some purchasers who are not yet used to the magazine and have not yet grown to like it, buying it is a charitable donation. A part of each week's sale must be accounted for in this way.

In my experience, on the other hand, the vendors are unfailingly polite and pleasant. A virtuous circle develops. You like the magazine; you buy it from the same person in the street; some words about the publication may be exchanged; the transaction is a good one. Without this benign process the magazine could never have succeeded.

The vendors have driven the sale of The Big Issue. Before selling the magazine on the street, many were labourers, but half have qualifications in trades from carpentry to catering; about 13 per cent once held professional appointments such as psychologist, engineer, teacher or nurse, before losing their jobs and falling into homelessness. Not many sleep rough nowadays; most have temporary accommodation in hostels, squats or friends' places.

The vendors did not like the monthly publishing interval with which The Big Issue began. They found that sales petered out after about two weeks and likewise their income - they keep just over half the cover price. They expressed their views. Within a year the magazine began to publish fortnightly and then a few months later, in June 1993, it became a weekly. The vendors continue to make their opinion of the magazine's covers known. They can estimate their sale from its appearance.

Nothing would have been possible, however, without John Bird. He founded the magazine and edited it for a lengthy period. Now he is editor-in-chief and chairman of the trustees of the Big Issue Foundation. The foundation helps vendors to find accommodation, it locates and funds places for them on training and education courses, and it runs workshops designed to rebuild their self-confidence.

John Bird is an idealist who focuses on a single question: is what we are doing going to help homeless people? The Big Issue's new editor, Becky Gardiner, formerly of The Independent on Sunday, has a parallel obsession - how to get ordinary people's voices heard.

To borrow a phrase from the Sixties, The Big Issue is a successful example of the counter-culture. For instance, it owes nothing to market research. It has not been carefully targeted at a nice market where, after much analysis, it is believed readers with spending power can be reached. The comments which the vendors make about each issue are of a different order to those derived from the carefully-balanced focus groups employed by conventional publishers. The magazine likewise owes nothing to its advertisers. It welcomes them and sells to them in a conventional manner, but it does not put them at the centre of its universe as do, say, women's and men's magazines.

But The Big Issue illustrates the most important rule of all: the success of a publication is ultimately determined by the character of its editor. What is sought is lucky coincidence between the beliefs, prejudices, ambitions, preoccupations and quirks of the editor and a sufficient number of readers. Editors have to be resolutely themselves. They must resist being programmed by business managers. Striking attitudes does not work. The Big Issue is authentic, it is true to itself - that is why I like it.