Pearls of wisdom

CEO Fay Selvan writes about the history of the magazine, why it was an important journalistic touchstone, and how we will continue to support vendors

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I remember first seeing the Big Issue North in 1993 because one of its earliest articles was on Hulme in Manchester – where I was working in Big Life’s first community centre. I can’t remember now if the bulldozers had started knocking down the Hulme flats, or if the regeneration was still in the planning stages, but I remember being excited to see the story told from the community’s perspective.

At that time, Big Issue North was just an insert in the London Big Issue magazine, but just over a year later, in April 1994, the first independent northern version – Big Issue Northwest – was published. Anne McNamara, co-founder with Ruth Turner, said it was one of the most diversely demanding roles she’s ever done.

“One minute you were developing article ideas, working out how to get sponsors, and talking to someone in Granada TV to see if you could get a Coronation Street star to attend an event. The next you were supporting a vendor who had her thumb bitten off. The challenge and the diversity is what made the work so unique and satisfying,” she said.

The back copies are like a social history – the first issue covered the planned regeneration of Ancoats, HIV and AIDS, proposed cuts to benefits, and the EU working time directive. These gritty social justice stories were supplemented by cultural events including listings for the Hacienda and Paradise Factory, and cinema showings of Sister Act and Schindler’s List. Of course, there was also a profile of a vendor, Dave selling on Market Street

Despite name changes and design updates, this format has continued throughout.

The vendor profiles have always been central because, as well as its content, the other unique thing about the Big Issue North is the people who sell it. Over the years, the magazine has provided a means for thousands of people to earn an income. It has provided a vital lifeline when times are tough.

Ruth Turner reflected that the Big Issue North showed her that “there’s a way out of messes and bad choices and it often involves someone else seeing the magnificent in us that we’ve lost sight of for a while. I discovered this at the Big Issue in the North, and irrespective of context or career twists and turns, it’s stayed with me.”

The history of street papers in the UK has mirrored the changing times. Alongside The Big Issue London and Big Issue North, other new street papers opened in the 1990s – Big Issue Midlands, Wales, South West and Scotland. We worked collectively together to raise social issues and share articles, as well as to secure national advertising income.

At the turn of the century, we were hit by the regional newspapers moving to a ‘free’ model. Suddenly our vendors were competing on the streets with people giving out free news and circulation declined.

It became increasingly hard to sustain production as sales were further eroded by news moving online and our income further reduced by the 2008 crash which decimated advertising. Gradually, following national trends in regional news, all the Big Issue papers merged, and Big Issue North was the sole remaining regional version.

In the face of these challenges, Big Issue North continued to innovate to change with the times – developing new products (like calendars), expanding our website and social media, and developing a new app – Street News – to bring in more income.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, it was both the worst and best of times. I can still remember feeling the massive wave of love and support when people reached out to help. The money raised sustained our vendors when their income was cut off, paid for PPE when they could start to sell on the street again, and helped us buy Sumup machines so that vendors could take cashless payments.

But it wasn’t just financial help – when we reached out to the supermarkets, they quickly agreed to stock copies of the Big Issue North so that we could continue to publish and keep the business afloat – ready for when the world re-opened. Without the help we received, we wouldn’t have made it through, nor would many of our vendors.

Since the pandemic we are selling about 70 per cent of what we sold in 2019. The rising costs of energy, paper, and printing led us to make the difficult decision to stop producing an independent Big Issue North magazine. We support over 600 vendors every year and our priority has to be to ensure they have a way to earn an income.

From next week, we will do this by giving them the opportunity to sell The Big Issue. We will continue to employ a northern correspondent to maintain some regional news coverage and of course, our Big Issue North Trust staff will continue to support vendors in all areas of their daily lives.

Although I am really sad this is our final edition of Big Issue North, I am also really proud that we continued publishing gritty content, focused on real life stories, with a local northern perspective for the last 30 years.

There are many people to say thank you to – the journalists who have tirelessly produced a magazine every week, the sales staff, the freelancers, designers, printers, funders, Trustees, and everyone who promoted us, or did a Big Sell… too many to list. Thank you.

But my biggest thank you is to you, our loyal readers, who I know will continue to support our Big Issue North vendors selling The Big Issue on the streets of the north.

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