The Big Issue may have just appointed its first digital editor but the magazine will remain resolutely print-first according to the man who’s taken the post.
Ben Sullivan, who was previously UK editor of Vice Media’s science and technology site Motherboard, is walking into an environment that is unique in the UK publishing landscape.
At a time when decades-old magazines such as NME are closing because they can’t make print pay, The Big Issue’s business model – indeed its entire reason for being – depends upon it.
Founded in 1991 to give the homeless a “hand up not a handout”, the weekly magazine is distributed by some of the poorest people in society who buy copies for £1.25 and sell them on the street for £2.50, keeping the profit.
This modus operandi presents an intriguing challenge for its new digital editor, who has been tasked with growing awareness of the brand online but needs to do so while ushering newfound visitors towards its primary and essential fundraising model – print.
“The Big Issue is first and foremost the magazine,” says Sullivan.
“We want to make the website a kind of 'The Big Issue Plus' destination. There’s a lot we can do to increase the awareness of the website and make BigIssue.com a destination for all sorts of people who are consuming news.”
In print, The Big Issue does not home in on audience demographics in the way that most magazines do, where readers are segmented according to gender, age and so on. Its sellers never know what type of person will be coming down the pavement to buy a copy, and therefore wide editorial appeal is required to put the most possible amount of pounds in their pockets.
The approach is working. While other print titles are seeing their circulations shrinking, the Big Issue’s is growing – up by a modest 1% to 83,073 in 2017 but up by 7% over the last three years, according to the ABCs.
Sullivan says the website has a similarly broad readership but thinks there is an opportunity to reach a younger audience who may not be accustomed to paying for media but do feel strongly about supporting causes that matter to them.
“We’re a trusted brand on the high street and we really want to cement our presence online to be able to support the organisation, and let people know why we exist and what we’re doing," said Sullivan.
“We have an opportunity now to reach a younger audience as well. They’ve grown up aware that The Big Issue’s on the street but because they’re digital-only, mobile-only, they perhaps might not buy the magazine. We’re looking to widen our audience completely and let everyone in."
He added: “Our end goal is dismantling poverty. Ultimately people do want to pay for that and people are happy to put their money behind a really great cause. I think that’s going to be successful in getting a younger audience to put their hand in the pocket.”
Sullivan is planning podcasts, video and mini-documentaries to lure those new audiences and complement the print product. “We talk to a lot of amazing people and we want to make those conversations available to a wider audience online, which will also raise awareness of The Big Issue magazine," he explained.
“[We’re planning] all sorts of multimedia. It will heavily involve our team of vendors and the people who are supporting the Big Issue, giving them the message of The Big Issue and reinforcing that we’re out on the street as well.”
And when it comes to measuring success, Sullivan says there’s one metric that matters above all. “Ultimately that’s measuring the awareness of The Big Issue brand in the UK. Anything we can do to help that is bang on.”