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Big Issue faces 'permanent death' without financial support during coronavirus crisis, founder warns

The Big Issue could face “permanent death” within a month unless 60,000 subscribers sign up to receive the magazine during the peak period of coronavirus (Covid-19), its founder warned today.

The magazine decided on Friday to stop its vendors from selling the magazine with immediate effect as the Government ordered an end to “non-essential contact” to slow the spread of the disease.

The publisher has told its 1,400 vendors, many of whom are described as “highly vulnerable” rough sleepers with underlying health conditions, to stop selling on the streets for their own safety.

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ABC figures show it had an average weekly circulation of 78,003 in 2019.

Big Issue founder and editor-in-chief John Bird has said his magazine was on a “knife edge” as “obviously the vendors should not be on the street”.

“And the public should not be on the street either. So the temporary death of the street could be the permanent death of The Big Issue.”

In a separate message shared on Twitter, he warned that “if the streets remain deserted, and we don’t sell more subscriptions or digital issues, we will be on our way out in a month”.

Bird said the magazine would be secure for the foreseeable future if 60,000 people subscribe for home delivery for three months, buy the digital edition, or make a one-off financial contribution online.

The figure of 60,000 was chosen as it is on the low side of the Big Issue’s average weekly circulation, making it an attainable target. According to ABC, the magazine had just 583 paid subscribers last year.

Proceeds from subscriptions and any other sales and donations will be shared 50/50 between the magazine and its vendors in keeping with its usual model.

Bird said: “Our incredibly powerful 29-year-long message: ‘A hand up not a handout,’ will have to be suspended for the moment. Why? Because the vendors will not be able to vend, so we must still support them.

“It’s hard enough surviving but we will do all we can to make sure they get money to survive the viral attack.

“These are not easy times for any of us. But it would be a crying shame if, after the crisis has lifted, homeless people didn’t have a means to earn an honest living.”

Big Issue editor Paul McNamee told Press Gazette there had been a “really heartening” reaction since the call for financial support launched over the weekend.

“It’s clear that the Big Issue is such a brand and that people have such an attachment to it that people are doing what they can,” he said.

McNamee added: “It would be fair to say this is the biggest challenge the Big Issue has ever faced. The reality is we need to sell an awful lot of these things.

“We are switching our model. In normal times a business economic model would go through testing, a lot of planning and then they would tinker before launching. We’ve had to change it in a week…”

This is all being done while editorial, production and senior management staff are working remotely, as in many businesses at the moment, making the change of model an even bigger challenge.

Frontline distribution staff have also worked round the clock at the weekend to get in touch with the vendors about the changes.

But support is coming from “right across the publishing and political and entertainment spectrum”, McNamee said.

“Armando Iannucci and Andrew Neil aren’t necessarily bedfellows but the Big Issue can bring them together.

“I think the Big Issue means something to people. They understand we are there for vendors when no one else is, not just for money but emotional support and a sense of wellbeing and we have to provide that now.”

Big Issue staff are also  helping the Government and London Mayor Sadiq Khan to move rough sleepers off the streets and into hotels during the pandemic.

Read all Press Gazette’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and the news industry here

Picture: The Big Issue

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