Magazine for the Poor

Selling The Big Issue

You’ve seen them wearing red jackets, carrying a red magazine. 

The Queen in Big Issue drag (Street Cat Bob mix). London, 2018.

They’re almost always standing on the high street outside tube stations and supermarkets. 

You might have even stopped to buy a copy of The Big Issue.

The magazine is needed more than ever since the UK’s homeless population has swelled to over 274,000. A housing crisis has forced many people into couch-surfing with relatives and friends, while the most unlucky end up on the streets.

The Big Issue was launched in 1991 after John Bird, a former Trotskyist turned publisher, encountered a homeless person hawking Street News in Manhattan. Bird got talking to him about the publication.

John Bird saw it as “a hand up, not a handout”. He conceived of a street magazine as a social enterprise to help people dig themselves out of poverty, addiction and homelessness. It was very much a part of the neoliberal ‘90s.

Today, The Big Issue has sold more than 200 million copies worldwide from Australia to South Africa. In the UK, the magazine has national divisions for Scotland and Wales and regional divisions for different parts of England.

Originally Street News sold for 75 cents and vendors kept 45 cents, plus the first 10 copies were free. The Big Issue would create its own version of this model with a 50/50 profit split for vendors.

Street News may have inspired The Big Issue, but it did not last due to pressure from the authorities. What we might call the street press is precarious and volatile by definition.

Nowadays The Big Issue sells for £3 and the vendor keeps £1.50 out of every sale. This could mean a lot on a good day, but those days can be far and few in between on the street.

A Big Issue vendor has to sell over five copies to make an hour’s minimum wage and almost eight copies to make an hour’s living wage. 

The sums involved do make a difference to the people selling the magazine, but it seems like an unlikely way to end poverty.

Many street papers do not last long. The Big Issue is the most successful publication of its kind. 

It’s worth asking why and what makes it so different to other street publications.  Worth noting is that The Big Issue is not without its detractors. 

The magazine has drawn its fair share of criticism from publishers who have spent years building up more radical street papers from the grassroots.

Journalism Without A Home

Street newspapers are an honourable tradition. 

The best of these periodicals provide a lifeline to homeless people, but also provide them with a voice. Many street papers have come out of religious institutions and progressive organisations.

We might think of The Big Issue as a contemporary and innovative idea for a magazine. However, the street press has a deeper history going back to the 1870s at least.

In 1879, the Salvation Army started The War Cry, arguably the first such publication, before it became a professional media operation. But more rough-and-tumble newspapers would follow.

Another example was Hobo News, which started in 1915 and ran until 1930. 

Hobo News was published by the International Brotherhood Welfare Association (IBWA). It was distributed in Ohio and Missouri with a circulation estimated up to 20,000.

An edition of Hobo News could be as long as 16 pages, with no ads and cost something like 5 cents. 

Socialist organiser Eugene Debs wrote for it and many members of the Industrial Workers of the World joined the IBWA during the First World War to escape persecution for being pacifists.

Sadly, the Cincinnati street paper did not outlive its founding father James Eads How. He came from a wealthy background but chose to live as a hobo. 

How died in 1930 and the paper soon went out of business.

The Catholic Worker, started by Christian radicals Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, has been promoting social justice and pacifism since 1933. Originally the Worker was a street paper, but it was joined at the hip with the Catholic Worker movement.

The publication was similar to a political party newspaper, except this was a Christian anarchist movement. The Catholic Worker started with just 2,500 print copies, but it had a circulation of 150,000 by 1936. 

A new version of Hobo News sprung up in New York City in 1936. Its highest readership was estimated at up to 50,000 readers. 

The paper became the Bowery News in 1948, but it didn’t survive.

Street News was started in 1989 in response to a crackdown on homeless people begging in the subways. It was a great success at first, going from a print run of 50,000 to 1,000,000, in just four months.

Few newspapers are truly written from below and Street News was an exceptional case. Recovering crack addict Lee Stringer was its first vendor. He later became its editor and wrote a regular column for the sheet.

A major blow came in 1991. The New York Metropolitan Authority banned selling newspapers on the subways. Homeless people were about to face renewed efforts to ‘sweep’ them away from the public.

This was around the time Bird would have run into a homeless man hawking the paper. He picked up the idea and ran with it to create a national magazine for the UK and, in time, many countries around the world.

Street News would stagger on for another decade or so, but its fortunes dwindled. It went from its height of a million readers to a circulation of just 3,000. The novelty factor was gone.

Today, The Big Issue is the best-known street newspaper but it’s a poor representative of a venerable practice. Nevertheless, the US is home to a variety of street newspapers despite attempts by The Big Issue to expand across the pond.

Unlike its radical antecedents, The Big Issue had a top-down business structure with a strong commercial and public relations strategy. This combination guaranteed its success as a social enterprise.

Whether this can solve homelessness is another matter. Its core drivers, such as a lack of affordable housing and a precarious labour market, have not been solved.

Lord John, Baron Bird

More than thirty years after it was founded, The Big Issue has become a global brand and its editor-in-chief John Bird still casts a long shadow over it. Even though his position is quasi-ceremonial, the magazine is his brainchild.

For all his efforts, Bird was awarded with an MBE and a seat in the House of Lords. He is officially a member of the Westminster establishment. He’s come a long way from his origins as a working-class lad born in squalor.

John Bird was a member of the Socialist Labour League and later the Workers Revolutionary Party, but his politics have changed a lot since the 1960s and 1970s.

In a 2010 interview, Bird said more about his own worldview. He confirmed what many had suspected for a long time.

“My guilty secret is that I’m really a working-class Tory. There, I’ve said it. I’d love to be a liberal because they’re the nice people but it’s really hard work – I can’t swallow their gullibility and I think their ideas are stupid,” he said.

“I’d love to be someone who wonders around in a kind of utopian paradise seeing only the good in everybody but I just can’t. I support capital punishment for a start,” he added.

“I know this will destroy my reputation among middle-class liberals but I’m 64 now and I should be able to breathe a bit,” said Bird. “Wearing the corsetry of liberalism means that every now and then you have to take it off.”

John Bird’s vision of society is not unlike the ‘big society’ once talked up by David Cameron. 

He wants to see the state rolled back in favour of social enterprise and the voluntary sector filling the gap. He saw The Big Issue as a business response to a social problem.

In a 2015 speech, Bird claimed the benefits system generates poverty and crime. He blamed “social engineers” and called for a reinvention of the role of government.

“I really think we’ve got poverty wrong. We actually spend too much time and too much money on the poor,” said Bird. “We enslave them.”

He is against welfarism and opposes government intervention, though he has supported tough police actions against beggars and rough-sleepers. A strange position for someone in his position.

Although Bird claimed to oppose the Conservatives and New Labour, his view of welfare is very much in line with the post-Thatcherite settlement and particularly ‘workfare’ initiatives.

He sees the poor as trapped by a dependency culture of benefits lacking any opportunities for self-betterment. This is not unlike the view taken by the Blairites and the Thatcherites.

John Bird entered the House of Lords as a crossbencher in 2016 meaning he votes issue-by-issue and not party affiliation. This allows him a great deal of room to manoeuvre on political issues without the trouble of labels.

Today, the UK is more unequal than ever with millions of people in poverty and thousands of people sleeping rough on the streets. What further proof could there be that The Big Issue is not the solution in the absence of state intervention?

The Big Issue may offer a lifeline to its vendors, but it does not offer them a platform nor does it demand the kind of social change necessary to abolish homelessness. It’s dependent on the very problem it seeks to alleviate.

Photograph courtesy of Garry Knight. Published under a Creative Commons license.