This week UK Editor of The Big Issue Paul McNamee tells us about the Big Issue’s Breakthrough scheme, paying disadvantaged young people to get into journalism. He also talks about why the magazine needed a redesign to make everything important and necessary, working with designer Matt Willey, their relationship with subscribers, digital-first news and balancing campaigning with making a properly entertaining magazine.

Ahead of the interview the team discuss their outrageous predictions for 2022 in media, from the necessity for strike teams to shut down live audio, through the Pivot to the Metaverse, to the rise and rise of micropayments for news (finally). Merry Christmas, all, and a happy New Year!

The transcript is live here, or see below for some highlights:

The background to launching the Breakthrough scheme

An awful lot of the media has contracted. 25 years ago, when I got my start, because I don’t come from any kind of money or anything like that, I could have got a start in a number of titles. And if I had shown any kind of smarts or ability, I would have got paid for it. Not a lot, but certainly paid something, I’d have been able to find a way to establish myself, as I did.

Now, there’s fewer titles, there’s a lot of stuff online where there isn’t quite the same money. Kids are invited to do things voluntarily, so they have to have money behind them, and this is not a good way to have a broad spectrum of people coming through any industry. While it’s good for nice, middle class kids… it locks out working class kids, or from difficult or other backgrounds.

What I’ve tried to do over the last number of years is find a way to introduce them to the industry. Some may have never thought of going into journalism or publishing, they just thought it wasn’t for them. So over the last little while, particularly coming out of Covid and lockdown, we really thought very differently about what the Big Issue was for, who it was for, how we served them, and how we broaden the scope of people we were helping.

[The Breakthrough scheme] gives us an opportunity to think in terms of a new set of people who we could encourage through the industry, perhaps teach, help develop their voice, and then help them go onto their chosen career, whether in publishing or not.

Priorities for a redesign

We sell on the street. We’ve got a certain core readership, and then we have to get new ones in every week. So I had to find a way to appeal to them. So I came up with this idea that it was just cross silo. On a very basic level, it’s interesting people saying interesting things. And one you start with that, you can go, ‘Well, that’s not very interesting, who wants to read that?’ Then you can start to change it.

There’d been an approach of ‘Trojan horse-ing’ certain things. So you’d have a certain thing on the cover that would appeal, and then inside you would do some of the heavier lifting. That worked, to an extent. And then as things developed, I wanted to go a bit further than that, because I thought, that’s slightly misleading.

What I wanted to do – and I think we’re getting close now with our new redesign – is to find a way to make every aspect that we are doing as entertaining, or as important, or as necessary as any other. Whether that’s us saying it’s not good enough that we’re allowing 700 rough sleepers to die in the streets while we carry an interview with Simon Le Bon, I don’t want them to feel as though they’re incongruous. I want them to feel as though that is the DNA of the Big Issue. That is interesting. How do we get involved with this And by the way, it looks good. That’s another important thing – we have to make sure the design makes the right sense of the type of agenda that we’re trying to hit.

The publisher’s relationship with subscribers

I’m glad that we have subscribers. Initially the subscriber base grew very quickly during the first lockdown because there was no other route to market. We went through retail for a bit but it was subscriptions that carried us for a few weeks. I’ve no issue with us having subscribers, and it doesn’t change how we produce the magazine at all – I’m just glad we’re getting it in their hands.

What I want to do really is find a way that we build enough online so that if you’re a subscriber, you get a little extra online. I want people to understand that when they subscribe, there’s a few things that they can do that either will help directly a particular vendor – they can subscribe from the person who they want to subscribe from, so that money will go directly to them – or they understand that this is more broadly helping us to help vendors, so that there’s still that connection. Because I think we could lose that. That’s a problem.

How the last 18 months has changed the Big Issue

When that lockdown happened, first of all, aside from everybody within the organisation, focused on keeping things going. It was just a remarkable, wonderful energy to keep it going. It was nightmarish, but at the same time, it was energising. We were going to do this.

There was also a very quick realisation that we just were not good enough online. We waxed and waned with what we were doing with the output online, the numbers were nowhere near where they needed to be. And we thought, we need to find a way to make our digital output not just support sales on the street, but offer something wider, to show what the Big Issue is about, reach more people. This would then potentially bring in more subscriptions, which will help us to support more people on the street.

And we needed to use it because the political situation was changing so much, we couldn’t really get into things in the magazine on the weekly cycle the way that we’d need to. So it allowed us time to really think about what we had to do online. And we built a team from scratch… And then we built a news team. Each of them have a different focus and different beats they will focus on. Then we will work out how we can use versions of that in the magazine as well. So there’s more of a link between online and offline.

Peter’s big prediction: The return of micropayments

  • Not as a replacement for paywalls, but as an alternative for some smaller, niche publishers (for example Popbitch)
  • Creates a spectrum of supporters: free, casual, subscriber, VIP member
  • Axate recently got funding and has been very active on the casual payment and pay-per-day model
  • The idea of digital wallets is increasingly normalised (Apple Pay etc.)and paying for content is just more common
  • 2022 won’t be the ‘year of micropayments’ but it will see them return as a viable part of the paid content conversation

Chris’s big prediction: Pivot to the metaverse

  • We’ve recently spoken about how publishers have learned from the pivot-to-video debacle and have stopped producing content without first having a commercial model that supports it but…
  • The emergence of new mediums and the sheer amount of cash Zuckerberg is throwing at the metaverse inevitably means we’ll see ‘experiments’ from publishers in those mediums that cost too much and return too little
  • We could see virtual classes run by health and fitness titles (without a way to pay the publishers directly) and meet-and-greets with celebrities like Lily Cole in platforms like Roblox and Facebook Horizon

Esther’s big prediction: A reckoning for audio moderation

  • Podcasts and social audio are starting to become huge vectors for misinformation
  • Twitter has come under fire this week as Spaces has had a flood of ‘racists and Taliban supporters
  • Clubhouse is similar – it’s been largely abandoned by the mainstream but has now become a hub for ‘drama rooms’ spewing hate, misogyny and controversy
  • Given Facebook now also has ‘live audio rooms’ it’s only a matter of time before that has issues too, given the number of users and previous record with misinformation
  • Podcasts came under fire last year, but it raises the question of just how you moderate audio content, especially live social audio
  • Platforms will have to figure it out before it becomes the next major way people come across disinformation!

News in brief:

  • BuzzFeed has gone public; the first major digital-media company to do so. But it wasn’t all plain sailing for the publisher. It raised just $16 million of the nearly $300 million invested in the SPAC – a shortfall of 94% – as investors got cold feet and withdrew before the deal was finalised.
  • The Week founder Jon Connell has launched The Knowledge, a ‘news digest for the digital era’. It’s based around a daily newsletter, and so far seems to share several traits with The Week, although Connell told Press Gazette it’s aimed at a younger audience. Lord Rothermere has chosen to buy a majority stake in the start-up through DMG Media.
  • And speaking of DMG Media It’s been a game of musical chairs at the company. Following Paul Dacre’s return to editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, mouth stuffed with sour grapes from his failure to secure the role as chief of Ofcom, some key talent has also departed. Mail editor Geordie Greig is out, taking staff including the paper’s head of PR Jon Wynne-Jones with him, and – more shocking still – the man behind the success (in numerical terms) of MailOnline, Martin Clarke, is also gone. It’s a dull power struggle – but one with potentially huge implications for a paper that was notably attempting to move away from the Dacre era of nastiness for its own sake.

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