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The mean streets - The Big Issue in the North

Despite a recent revamp, a new editor and the appointment of a marketing agency, Caroline Price, MD of The Big Issue In the North, claims that there is a lot more to do.

The Big Issue magazine is regionalised, with independently produced weeklies, with their own team and content, in the north of England, the south, Wales and Scotland. Price has seen sales slope ‘dramatically’ in her region since February. From often hitting a circulation mark of 30,000 throughout the north of England in 2007, the Big Issue in the North has this year consistently averaged closer to 20,000. “It’s the same for all of us,” she admits ruefully.

Economic meltdown has conspired against The Big Issue just as it has other publishers – fewer shoppers on the high street with less disposable income makes it naturally culpable. But sales of the magazine can be affected by even more fickle factors, like having a washout of a summer. “At first we didn’t necessarily associate [the sales drop] with the credit crunch. The bad weather in the summer obviously doesn’t help when you’re a street paper.”

Different factors

Price says it can be ‘very hard’ to separate out all the different factors behind sales because The Big Issue’s environment – sold by vendors in the street – isn’t as stable as news-stand magazines. “So sometimes you think ‘Ah, that was a great cover – it did really well’, but then someone will point out that the weather was particularly good that week. All sorts of things affect sales, including the number of vendors we have out on the street.”

When sales fall, it’s only natural that advertisers get twitchy. Up until now, ad sales have ‘held up’ because of the nature of The Big Issue’s advertisers – predominantly public sector and volunteer organisations and not FMCG businesses. “We’ve been quite resilient. But just over the last couple of months we’ve started to feel the pain a little, just as everyone else has.”

To arrest the circulation decline and combat falling revenue, The Big Issue in the North edition re-launched last month with a new look. Although Price agrees the magazine’s redesign is timely given its recent sales woes, she insists change was already afoot – before it started to struggle – following last year’s arrival of a new editor, Kevin Gopal, and his ‘fresh pair of eyes’.

The new magazine isn’t different in terms of content – it still contains a celebrity cover story interview and hard-hitting, local, national and global social awareness features – but one of the most immediate additions is a new masthead which puts much more emphasis on the word ‘North’. The thinking behind giving the magazine a stronger regional identity emerged from sessions with Manchester marketing agency Momentum, which was appointed as ‘strategic research consultant’ to The Big Issue in the North earlier this year.

In focus groups, Momentum found participants who already bought the magazine shared the same ‘regional empathy’, evidenced by the way many purchasers return to the same local vendor, time after time, to buy their copy. Among people who didn’t buy the magazine, the agency found most shared common misconceptions about its content and ideals. “A lot of people think it’s all about homelessness,” Price says. “So even when they are generous enough to buy a copy they might not even open it.”

It also emerged that many people don’t realise that the vendors who sell the magazine have to buy a bulk of issues, like wholesalers, and that they run it as a small business. “People keep saying to me, ‘but I thought you gave it away to them to sell?’. People are a lot more empathetic when they realise that it needs the vendor to show some discipline and skill to go out and budget for the next week’s stock and they are limited by how many they can sell.”

Price admits that interacting with a vendor to buy the magazine can be a barrier to purchase for some people and as many vendors tuck the bulk of their magazines under their arms, they can also, inadvertently, keep people from having any idea of what’s inside an issue. “We happened to do an interview with Russell Brand at an opportune time and got it on the cover just as that news about him was breaking. It was the kind of cover story that people would have picked up, but when you watch the vendors you do get the idea that people might not even realise what’s on the cover.”

There are ideas under consideration to make the buying process easier for people, including giving the vendors some kind of news-stand to make them more approachable and the content more visible. Price says it’s a “fantastic idea and definitely the future,” but she insists, however, that any such stands would rest on the co-operation of city centre wardens, police, shops and the public. It’s certainly a more attractive proposition to Price than distributing the magazine through any other method than vending. “I wouldn’t want to cannibalise their sales by offering [the magazine] through too many other channels. We are very committed to our social outcome, which is giving the vendor the opportunity to earn a legitimate income.”

The task is hard for the vendors, given the numerous other charity collectors – cruelly derided as ‘Chuggers’, charity muggers, by a group on Facebook – who compete with them for public attention on the street. If that’s not enough of a squeeze, there are also now a range of publications – evening newspapers, the Metro, Shortlist magazine – being distributed in exactly the same way as The Big Issue but being handed out for free and making its £1.50 price tag appear less modest. Price, though, insists the only thing The Big Issue and rival freebies share is their method of distribution.

Passionate

“It would be natural to assume that because it’s sold in the same way as the Manchester Evening News for instance (distributed free on the street in the city centre) that it’s a competitor. It isn’t. The Big Issue is not necessarily something people pick up that way to read in transit like a lot of freesheets. It’s difficult to know exactly who is buying our magazine because of the way it’s distributed, but from the research we did we discovered they tend to be people who are passionate about the same issues we write about – so it’s the kind of magazine they could take home and read properly. You consume The Big Issue much more in the mould of a magazine that you’d buy in a newsagent – not a free paper you’re likely to throw away once you’ve flicked through on the train.”

For The Big Issue to be understood, consumed and judged just like any other title on the news-stand though, Price admits there is still some way to go. Marketing will continue – The Big Issue in the North recently had a second ‘Big Giveaway’, handing out taster copies in local newspapers – but there has to be a ‘balance’ between the magazine, its promotion and The Big Issue’s responsibility to the people who need its help to find homes and combat problems in their lives.

“Like a lot of people in our sector we’ve got very good at doing things without spending a lot on frills – we’re very good at squeezing the most out of the budget. But it’s always about balance – we don’t want to compromise on the quality of the magazine. In the end, we don’t do our vendors any justice if we don’t give them a good product to go out and sell. We have an editor, a deputy editor and one production person and they do a fantastic job using freelancers to get that magazine out every week.

“We haven’t, by any means, finished our task of getting our story out to the public about what you can find in this magazine. That’s something we really need to do.”

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