Peter Houston

Peter Houston: How was your induction into the Scottish PPA’s hall of fame?

Paul McNamee: It was a big surprise. It was a very nice surprise. These sorts of things normally come to people closer to the end of their career.

Further along in their career.

Yeah. All that being said, it’s still very nice. I know it sounds like a cliche when you say when your industry in the people you work with recognize what you’re doing, especially when you don’t solicit this kind of response, it means something and it really did. I didn’t think it was for me, or whether it ever would be at that kind of that position and to garner that kind of recognition. But it was really lovely. I felt very, very pleased to be there to get it.

You’ve been at the Big Issue for over 10 years?

Yeah, I was. I started Big Issue in Scotland, about 12, almost 13, years ago. I went in initially, as Deputy Editor in the Scottish edition. At that time, there were many editions across Britain because of the way the Big Issue was constituted. Each had their own editorial teams, Scotland, Wales, even the south of England, as well as the rest of England. So there were all these teams and I went in at the Times Deputy in Scotland.

They were trying to change a couple of things around, I’d been on a table in Ireland, and the chief exec asked if I could try some things. And I did, and then I became editor in Scotland. Then they started to move towards one title and they actually did this pan-Celtic title thing. So I was editor of the Welsh and the Scottish editions. I was travelling a lot between Glasgow and Cardiff.

Then, about 10 years ago, the board realized that it was becoming counter-productive to still have different editorial teams, and particularly different advertising teams, all trying to get a bite of a changing and diminishing pie. So at that point, they said we need one national edition. I became editor then and that’s when the whole thing really started to take off for me.

Are there still editorial offices in different places, or is it all in Glasgow?

We’ve only two. The main base for the editorial is in Glasgow, there is a an editorial base in London that until quite recently had been mostly back-office staff, whether it’s HR or IT support, and also some Big Issue investors in there. But because of the investment we put into digital, there’s no digital team down there. That’s also where the Breakthrough team is based out of, so that has increased in size over the last year.

You mentioned that Breakthrough scheme. That’s a big deal. Tell me about that.

Well, that’s something I’ve been trying to do, or do a version of, for quite some time. The general idea is – I know we’ve discussed this in the past, an awful lot of the media has contracted and what that means is that, 25 years ago, when I could have got a 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. If I had shown any kind of smarts and ability, I would have gotten paid for it, not paid 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.

So while it’s good for nice middle-class kids, who are smart, I’m not diminishing their abilities, it locks out a lot of working-class kids, or those from difficult or other backgrounds. What I tried to do over the last number of years is find a way to introduce them to the industry. Some may have never thought about going into journalism or publishing, they just thought it wasn’t for them.

Over the last little while, particularly coming out of COVID, out of lockdown, we really thought very differently about what the Big Issue was for, who it was for, how we served them, how we broaden the scope of people that we were helping. This 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 below them to go on into their chosen career, whether it’s still in publishing or not.

The important thing for me within that was to make sure that they were getting paid, because they were coming from difficult backgrounds, as most of them were on the dole, so I wanted to make sure that they got paid properly, that they get their travel expenses, so that they saw that this was a viable opportunity for them. That was something of the starting point.

The government had their Kickstart scheme that allowed employers a certain amount of money to employ young people. We actively sought people from more marginalized backgrounds. Within the Big Issue, we upped the pay. I think the money coming through Kickstart was minimum wage and what we’ve done is bring it up to London Living Wage, plus travel expenses.

We’ve got four, initially, young people who are maybe very early 20s and they’re going through a program that we’ve developed that takes him through rudiments of news and feature writing, page layout, all these kinds of things. But also, given where we are, they’re creating in a way that we wouldn’t necessarily create it and they’re speaking in voices that we don’t have, to people of their age. So whether it’s through TikTok channels, or however they decide, is the best means to output that stuff. They’re teaching me as much as we’re teaching them.

I love that. Ideally, you’ve got that cohort there that, I’m guessing they’ll learn from you guys, but to learn from each other, and then they pass something back to you. That’s the problem with it, this idea that you don’t have the voices to talk to the audience is one thing, but you also don’t have the voices internally. There are questions getting missed inside the organisations.

You’re absolutely right. There’s another side to this, not just that certain people get locked out. But as you’ve just touched on there, when you’ve been doing this for a while, and I’ve got a number of people here who’ve been with me for a few years, who are really brilliant, able, smart journalists, but they’re getting on a bit, they don’t come from whole varied set backgrounds in any way.

They’ll have their own growing concerns. Vendors tell us things, obviously, and we’re very much plugged in to that particular voice and we understand it, but a wider societal spread isn’t just here. And that’s important. You can’t preach, you can’t talk down. We can’t say, I am a man in my mid-40s. I’m going to tell you how to do a Ted talk on something or other. It will be so funny, it will be laughable, be like Alan Partridge.

If you’re serious about being a serious modern publisher, whether that is through the magazine, or online, or social, you need to not just listen to but incorporate the voices of the changing public. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

Looking back at your job as the head of that organisation’s editorial. One of the challenges that I think you’ve got to be facing is this balance between the campaigning aspect of the Big Issue and the actual just being a magazine and entertaining people aspect. I saw a piece either this week or last week about how 700 homeless people died this year on the streets.

That’s a really, really big deal and it’s core to your mission. Then at the same time, you’ve got Adrian Lobb interviewing Simon Le Bon. How do you balance that as an agenda?

Well, I think you’ve got to take a step back from that. When I come in to the magazine, unlike a lot of people who were involved with the Big Issue, I didn’t come from any kind of social background. I mean that in a broad sense, whether that is working the third sector or having worked in absolutely that campaigning age of journalism or for those kinds of titles or in communications.

I came from a commercial editorial background, I worked for newspapers, I worked for the enemy, I worked for titles that needed to sell in order to get people in. So I came with that attitude that the first thing that we really need to do is to sell magazines, because if you’re not selling magazines, then you can’t change anything. You can’t change hearts and minds. You can’t allow vendors to earn money, or you won’t have readers come in and build this community.

So my first objective was to make it a magazine that people wanted to read. Clearly, there’s a social justice aspect to the Big Issue that has been there from the start, but that was important. And so over the years, I’ve stopped it – most publishers act in silos. They will say, here is our demographic, here’s the style of writing, the style of picture, it’s women of 20 to 35 who are interested in this kind of lifestyle, and we’re going to speak to that.

We can’t do that, because 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. And so I came up with this idea that it was just cross-silo. It was, on a very base level, interesting people saying interesting things. Once you start with that, you go, well, that’s not very interesting, who wants to read that, and then you can start to change it. Then we started to do things.

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. And that worked to an extent. Then, as things developed, I wanted to go a bit further than that, because I thought that’s slightly misleading and also, again, not that interesting, just taking the big well-known face and then saying here’s a story about homelessness.

So what I wanted to do, and I think we’re getting close now, with a particular new redesign we have, is to find a way to make every aspect that we are doing as entertaining or as important or as necessary as any other. So whether it is us really saying this is not – that sounds quite facile – but saying it’s not good enough that we’re allowing 700 rough sleepers to die on the streets, while we carry interviews with Simon Le Bon.

I don’t want it 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 in 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.

What was the driver for that redesign?

There were a couple of things: 1) the magazine got messy. Every redesign, I’ve worked on maybe two or three with the Big Issue, and each one, there’s always been something wrong with it. I felt when we come out of it, maybe we were listening to too many voices saying we need this within it because it’s the Big Issue, or we need that within it.

We had, on one redesign and probably the most recent, got close to something really good, but during the lockdown, because we had to take so much content out, our bread and butter stuff, whether it’s interviews of people making films, or it’s some talk about events that are going on in the world, we had to take out or we had to put substitutes in because that was how the world had changed. We had to react and find a way to do that and then when we tried to come back out and re-establish the magazine, it didn’t work.

It was getting really messy. It didn’t flow, the navigation was all over the place. It had lost its way a bit, so we knew we had to really, really alter it completely. And so I started to come up with a way of doing this, working with initially John Byrd and Paul Cheal. We reached an agreement on where we would go editorially. Then I’d always wanted to work with Matt Willie, who I think it’s just one of the great global designers.

There’s a lot about magazines that I don’t like, I think they can be formulaic, I think that they can be lazy on the cover, I think that they sometimes speak to other magazine people rather than the wider public. What I liked about Matt’s designs was that he just went beyond, he thought differently, and his stuff on the New York Times, I still look at some of that. I think I just want to be here in these pages. That’s what I wanted. I wanted some of that. And also that stuff’s really cool.

So for about two months – first of all, Matt’s one of the busiest men I’ve ever met. He’s always got two or three projects, he’s now moved on to Pentagram, the big design house. When we started talking, we talked about Manchester United and mid-1950s to mid-1960s, period jazz record covers for about a month. That was all we really discussed in terms of identity and aesthetic.

And then from that we started talking wider about – there’s an Italian magazine that I really like how it does things with fonts, rather than imagery. But the pages never look full of text. It’s a beautiful way of treating things, even though I can’t understand Italian, but I like looking at it. We started discussing that.

Matt’s got a particular thing that he’s really good at with fonts and space. He uses a lot of the page, but it doesn’t look like it. Anyway, that’s how the whole thing developed. There’s a particular way that I wanted to approach news, that wasn’t news, but it was kind of comment on the news, and making overwritten headlines at the front of the book and changing navigation. So we just went through everything.

And then Matt said, right, we’re going to look at the mast and we started looking at the mast, and we just blew everything that had been there. We recreated the magazine and I am very proud of it. You do get nervous when you put these things out. Initially, I think everybody’s going go, what have you done? And there was a bit of that, but hopefully people are coming round now.

Everyone I’ve ever talked to that’s done a magazine redesign has been terrified of putting it out in the public because people get invested, don’t they? The readers get invested saying, what have you done to my magazine?

Yes, although my argument to that frequently is well, if more have you bought it, then perhaps we wouldn’t be doing quite so much. So come along with us now.

I just saw a tweet, actually. I have no idea who it was from, somebody that said there’s so much quality journalism in the Big Issue. I wish more people would realize what a great read it is. Do you get frustrated that people aren’t reading it harder?

No. I tell you what I do get frustrated about, because you can’t make people read the thing. You can find ways, as I said, to make them want to be on the page and make them want to say I love this now. What I do get frustrated by, and this is an attitude I’m trying to change, is that thing that people go, oh but it’s a really good read.

That used to drive me mad, because well of course, it’s a very good read. What do you think we’re doing here? We’re good people, I’ve got really good colomnists. We think hard about how it looks and now we’ve got this great, really agenda-shifting redesign. So I do get frustrated with people when they say oh but it’s a good read. Of course it’s a good read, let’s move on from that. What I want is for it to be seen as the thing that leads the people to go well, yes, that’s okay, but it’s not quite as good as the Big Issue.

So that when they’re talking to their pals, it’s not that oh but it’s a good read, it’s of course it’s a good read and then complain when it’s not good enough. I want more of that. That’s where I’m trying to get to.

I think that’s that balance between just making something that can sell and making it feel like a proper magazine. One of the things that must have changed for you is the subscription side of things. People can buy it in the street just because they see a vendor or whatever, but people subscribe because they care about the campaigns, they care about you doing the job that you do, but also because they love getting a magazine every week. I get it every week and I love it. But has that changed the way you approach it?

No, not at all. I’m glad that we have subscribers and I’m glad that initially our 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 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 lose that. That’s a problem.

But I suppose if we had more time, if we were monthly, we would do a slightly different edition for subscribers. But no, it doesn’t change how we do it. With the redesign, I did think more about people grazing and access points in the magazine, which sounds like one of those things that you should do normally anyway, but I hadn’t always. Perhaps maybe in the back of my mind, that was something about getting subscribers a little more because if it around the house, they might navigate a magazine differently. But it certainly wasn’t in the forefront of my mind.

The last 18 months has obviously been massive. Do you think it’s changed the way you work? Partly, you’ve got more stuff online now.

Yeah.

So has it definitely changed the way you work?

Oh, it has. It has totally changed. When that lockdown happened, first of all, aside from everybody within the organisation focused on this goal of keeping things going on – and it was just a remarkable, wonderful energy to keep going, it was nightmarish but at the same time, it was energised and we were going to do this.

There was also a very quick realization 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. We thought we need to find a way to make our digital output, not just support fields on the street, but offer something wider to show what the Big Issue is about, to reach more people, which would then potentially bring more subscriptions, which will help us to support more people in the street, or indeed just be a way that people know more about the Big Issue.

Because of 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. We built a team from scratch, really. Alastair Reid has come on as digital editor, and he has overseen the redesign of the website, which has been a big fundamental change.

Then we built a team, a news team, each of them has a different focus and different bits that they will focus on. And 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.

It’s a crap phrase, but have you very quickly become digital first?

We’re certainly digital-first with news, 100%. The news conference in the morning is a digital meeting. And it is, as with any news conferences, about what have you got, what you’re working on, what are you following up, really. And it’s brilliant, given the way things are. I don’t always have time to sit in on those meetings.

But the young team that we have, I don’t mean in that old Scottish way, a young team going around causing trouble. I mean, they’re a team of younger people, young journalists, who are really, really good. They’re really smart. They’re really sharp. I’ve always wanted to make sure that we have a wit in what we do not a piousness – and they get it.

They’ve got good ideas, whether it’s about the environment, whether it is about issues around social justice, or the £20 cap for people on benefits. Whatever it is, we’ve got people here really on it coming up with great stories, great op-eds. That’s totally digital first and it’s allowed us to rapidly increase the number of uniques that we are getting on the site which will hopefully take us to a different point and make us a different sort of publishing organisation.

So what’s next? What we got going on next year?

Well, it’s continuing development online. I think that’s there’s a lot of exciting things that we can do. There’s more investigative stuff I think we can do now that we’re starting to get embedded. We can really think about how we know it’s not just a story, but it’s perhaps a longer read or longer investigation, it’s got a longer tail on it, both for online and a magazine.

I think because of the way Britain is emerging from COVID, because of the huge fissures that are there between the haves and the have-nots. We have to hold those in power to account, we have to be a place, a platform for those without a voice. We have to just be bigger and better. And those aspects that we have before, we’re getting pretty good at it.

But I want us to do more of that. You touch on campaigning, we will carry on being a campaigning title. We’ve been doing this thing called Stop Mass Homelessness and the idea is that we fear, around 200,000 households could fall into homelessness, which is just a deadly shock. We want to do something about that.

We’re campaigning on a governmental level to get rid of rent debt that blew up during COVID. So we will carry on doing that. I want to see the magazine, now that it’s god this great new framework and design, I want to see how we can use that in interesting ways.

And I want to make sure that we just carry on serving the vendors, because we’ve got all these great developments around us. But we have to remember why we are here. Our base for the poorest and most marginalized in the country, we offer them a means to work their way out of that and that’s what we have to try and do. We will continue to do that. We will serve other people.

There’s an e-bikes scheme that’s about to launch in Bristol, you’ll be able to get a Big Issue bike. That’s interesting. As ever with the Big Issue, there’s 101 things happening, but I think we we do have some real focus on the things that we need to do.

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