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All Around World

 The Big Issue in Scotland 24 May 2019

(Originally published: 10/2009) From the streets of London came not just a magazine but a movement. Adam Forrest charts the incredible revolution in street papers kick-started by The Big Issue. ( Words) - By Adam Forrest

Some ideas are too good not to share. The bold ambition of The Big Issue project immediately touched a collective nerve with the British public when it was launched in 1991, but its impact spread very quickly beyond national boundaries. The simple clarity of the concept soon sparked a revolution in publishing, socially-motivated enterprise, and even housing policy across the globe.


Soon after the first magazines hit the streets of the London in 1991, like-minded souls from Europe and North America descended on the cramped office in the capital looking for advice on starting up similar projects. However acute the problem, homelessness was not unique to Britain. The first European street papers were launched in Belgium and France in the summer of 1993 using the formula pioneered by John Bird and his team - a publication sold by the homeless to help them forge a living and a sense of purpose, as well as providing a campaigning voice on the issues that left so many marginalised and vulnerable in the first place.


Soon many others around the world were copying The Big Issue model through visits and phone calls to the London HQ. Aware all this interest was not about to fade, The Big Issue set up an international department in 1994, and also agreed to fund a collective enterprise - the International Network of Street Papers (INSP). By the first INSP conference in London 1995, there were 16 members, including distinctive Big Issue editions in Scotland, Wales and the North of England.


Long-before the London-based daily papers like The Sun or The Times began producing Scottish editions, The Big Issue had introduced a working model of devolution to British publishing. "I argued that if you want good sales in Scotland, you have to do Scottish content," says Mel Young, one of the founders of The Big Issue in Scotland. "We ploughed our own furrow. The politics were different in Scotland, and always have been. Thatcher's idea that there was no such thing as society just didn't ring true with Scots. We believe in community; we believe in fairness."


Young, who later became chair of the INSP, explains the thinking behind the international affiliation. "It was a loose network - a trade association for street papers. The idea was that whether you were in Paris or London, if you saw that INSP stamp, the reader knew it had the same shared values. You knew how it treated its vendors, that there was a social support programme for them, and that it was non-profit organisation."


The growth of this collaboration over the last 15 years is staggering. There are now over 100 publications in the INSP, stretching across 37 countries and five continents. Although in some languages, 'Big Issue' simply didn't translate very well, The Big Issue South Africa and The Big Issue Australia were established in 1996 and along with The Big Issue Japan (set up in 2003), took on the name of the progenitor and maintained close links.


Osaka and Tokyo may not seem to have much in common with London or Glasgow, but the Japanese magazine sold in these cities follows familiar themes. It aims to "cut deep into social issues and tackles negative social conditions with a positive attitude", and help the homeless population that emerged after Japan's long economic stagnation of the nineties. Vendors buy each copy for 140 yen and sell it for 300 yen, and The Big Issue Japan Foundation follows the UK facsimile in providing access to health services and job training to help vendors to move on with their lives.


In South Africa, the magazine is run as an NGO, and its vendor-force in Cape Town comprises mainly of long-term unemployed Xhosa-speaking people from township areas. Donald Paul, editor of The Big Issue South Africa, suggests the UK offered an exemplary structure not only in its distribution set-up, but also in finding the right editorial blend of news, campaigning and entertainment features.


Recent years has seen the emergence of The Big Issue elsewhere in Africa. The Big Issue Zambia and The Big Issue Malawi are beginning to spread their wings after starting in 2007 and 2008. Malawi editor John Chikago says they have 50 active vendors in Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu, who earn 200 Kwacha (50% of the cover price) for each magazine. "We are beginning to change the culture so people are working rather than begging," he says. "We have to stay clear of stories involving politics because we don't want to divide the vendors. I'm very happy with the quality of what our journalist contributing and it will continue to get better. Any problems, we will overcome them."


The Big Issue Zamabia has helped train over 100 unemployed people living in the slums of Lusaka. "We want to show the world that the people of Africa can change our own lives in a positive way," says editor Samba Yonga. Troubles with high printing costs and generating enough advertising revenue means the Kenya edition is on a temporarily hiatus, but the team there hope to see it up and running again soon.


Serge Lareault, editor of Montreal street paper L'Itinéraire, and current chair of the INSP, explains why other street papers have been keen to fashion a more independent identity. "The original London model was a great model, and many people looked at The Big Issue and wanted to reproduce it," he says. "But there are a great diversity of approaches, and people must choose whatever works best for them. In North America, many of the street papers are more run on a charity basis, and the vendors are encouraged to write a lot of articles. The main influence of The Big Issue was to try to be professional about things."


Among the most interesting editorial divergences were those who believed street publications had a strong remit to take strident political stances, and eschew the big-name interviews coveted by the daily newspapers and glossy monthlies. Others, like The Big Issue magazines in the UK, found its vendors wanted a well-known face on the cover to pull readers in, and that the stars often had a lot to say about injustice of one sort or another.


"The type of people that run street papers have pretty strong opinions," laughs Young about the inevitable disagreements. "In the early days we were very keen to create a broad church. There were some weird and wonderful arguments. Some people believed there shouldn't be any advertising because then you've become too cosy with the corporate world. Some people argued that celebrities shouldn't be in there, and others responded that those kinds of features could help maximize the number of sales.


"But these are healthy discussions and there was always a lot of respect about different approaches," he adds. "And there is always a unity in wanting to do the best for the vendors. It's about the homeless person having the best product that people want to buy."


It's a governing ethos than remains as practical and important as it was 18 years ago; one that now unites the shared problems of quite different cultures around the world.

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