Why The Big Issue is bucking the publishing trend

Print magazines are struggling to capture large audiences and increase advertising spend, but that isn't the case for The Big Issue, as Amy Hetherington explains to Mumbrella's Zoe Samios.

Declining advertising spend and a reduction in print circulation have had a sizeable impact on publishers’ ability to survive in a modern digital landscape, but for not-for-profit title The Big Issue, its strong purpose and simple distribution model has helped it build audiences.

The publication, which began in Australia in 1996, has had more than 6,500 vendors working for it locally and sold more than 11m copies. For the vendors, that’s $26m in earnings which has arrived in their pockets.

With just over 18 months under her belt as The Big Issue’s editor, Amy Hetherington, whose experience spans form New Idea to Snapper Media, says the vendors, their communication with customers and the magazine’s distribution model are key to the success of the title.

Hetherington joined the publication in July last year

“The Big Issue is unlike any other magazine in Australia in that it is only sold on the streets around Australia by our vendors, so it isn’t sold in a news agency. It’s that model that the Big Issue has and the purpose that has helped defy other negative trends that are out there in print media,” she explains.

“When people buy The Big Issue they know that they’re helping someone immediately so they buy The Big Issue for $7 from the vendor and the vendor is earning half of that.

“People really respect that the vendors are getting out there and they are working really hard and they are out there trying to improve their lives. People really respond to that and respond to our vendors.”

The Big Issue also has the ability to build a loyal following, particularly with specific vendors at a designated location, Hetherington said.

However Hetherington says while vendors are top of mind, editing The Big Issue requires editing for two audiences.

The Big Issue has to create content that will engage both the vendors and their buyers

“First of all, our vendors buy the magazine for $3.50 which they then on sell for $7. So we need to create a product that they are really proud to sell,” she says.

“And then obviously it needs to have a magazine that they, the outside public, are really engaged with as well.”

And she argues that’s working, with the publication’s latest Roy Morgan figures reporting a 21.1% increase in readership in the last quarter, to 253,000.

But she adds: “The whole point of The Big Issue is to create an income and work opportunity for our vendors. That’s the bottom line and that’s what our whole drive is towards. For other publications that exist, it would be a difficult model for them to have.”

The publication is able to attract big names because of its strong social

A challenge for The Big Issue however, is that 85% of its vendors are men. Hetherington says research several years ago suggested women did not want to become vendors as they did not feel safe.

The Big Issue came up with an alternative employment option for women as a result: “We discovered a lot of the women weren’t comfortable working on the street. Domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness in Australia.

“We created the women’s subscription enterprise which means that women are employed to pack and distribute the magazines to subscribers because it creates a safe working environment.”

She says the alternative option for women means there is no barrier to employment, which is The Big Issue’s primary focus.

“That’s our purpose and mission which is why we are different than other publications and why our publication continues to grow and thrive and [audiences] continue to engage with it,” she says.

Looking to 2018, the focus will be reviewing The Big Issue’s digital product.

“We do have a digital product which you can buy via our vendors and also through subscriptions or you can buy it on our website. But we are looking into that platform and we are doing research at the moment,” she explains.

Hetherington says the publication will look at digital payments and a way to connect those payments with the vendors. Currently, vendors sell a small card with a code. Buyers must then go onto The Big Issue’s website and access a digital copy.

Last month’s edition featured Paul McCartney

“It’s a small portion of our sales currently so it’s looking at how best to expand that and to make it more user friendly,” she says.

And while there are many who will argue ‘print is dying’, Hetherington disagrees arguing the print product is still viable.

“One of the things that’s key for us is that interaction with our vendors and the relationship with our vendors and that will always be a consistent and always be something that will remain strong.

“It’s something that’s tactile, people still like to sit back and relax and read. We are on our digital devices all the time. It’s nice to be able to step away from that, the magazine offers a different point of view than a lot of other publications out there and it is that thing of going up and buying it from the vendor and having a conversation with the vendor, whether it’s about content, it’s about the weather, it might be about the vendor and their lives.

“That is key, that exchange that’s there is really key to what The Big Issue is about and will continue to be. Print isn’t dying, print is just evolving in different ways.”


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