The Big Issue’s Digital Edition

Home and AwayThe Big Issue (Australia) made an exciting announcement this week: From 7 June there’ll be another way to enjoy it. Currently a print-only magazine (and a fantastic one at that), it will also be available digitally.

It’s a complementary approach and one that I’m fairly excited about—the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), of which The Big Issue is a member, has been trialling the digital editions overseas for some time.

The response has been positive, with digital sales making up between 1% and 10% during the trial period. At the same time, the digital issues ensure that, while never replacing vendors’ incomes, give readers options to read the mag in formats that best suit their needs.

The move is indicative of one that’s affecting the wider publishing and newspaper industry—how to adapt to a digital age without losing revenue. That’s especially important for The Big Issue’s vendors, who have very often experienced tough times and are selling the magazine as a way to turn their lives around (not that I’m saying journalists and others who work for newspapers and magazines are any less in need—we all need a viable, steady income).

It’s no secret that I’ve a massive soft spot for The Big Issue, although I’d say respect rather than soft spot. The magazine provides quality content for readers as well as dignified, life-saving employment. What’s not to like about that?

The digital editions will work like this: Vendors will continue to sell the print editions, but they’ll also sell digital access cards for those who want them. The cards will contain details for downloading the mag to computers and reading devices such as iPads. As with the print editions, $3 from the $6 sale will go directly to the vendor—‘a hand up, not a hand out’.

The Big Issue has a strong track record with coming up with innovative ways to help people. Their Women’s Subscription Enterprise, for example, sees companies and people buy magazine subscriptions (I’m particularly impressed by this one—it’s not something I’d be clever enough to come up with).

Under this scheme, female vendors who otherwise may not feel safe selling the magazine on the street or who may have family commitments that prevent them from doing so, are able to pack and post the magazines, thereby earning a living.

The proceeds from the magazine sales also go to such programs as their street soccer one, which sees vendors and beyond head along to weekly football sessions that help them get fit, make friends, learn team work, and have fun. It’s kind of all-round win win.

Some players from the street soccer program are selected for the Homeless World Cup (HWC), an annual international event for homeless and marginalised people that uses football to inspire social change.

There isn’t yet a book about the Australian team, but Dave Bidini did a bang-up effort following the Canadian team at the 2008 HWC, which The Big Issue hosted in Melbourne. It’s a good indicator of the kinds of incredible work The Big Issue does, and the benefits of its profits. I, for one, will be roadtesting the digital editions (and supporting its flow-on football effect) come 7 June.

Digital Street Papers: Inspiring Change

Print newspapers’ decline has been well documented, as has their mad scramble to replicate and monetise the model online. That’s not to say that many people beyond the industry have been losing sleep over the digitisation-meets-modernisation-meets-monetisation issue.

In fact, (and I’m paraphrasing here) a Twitter retort to Rupert Murdoch’s tweet that bemoaned why he received nought but antagonism via Twitter—‘Why does everyone hate me?’—summed it up nicely. The clever tweeter explained: ‘I tend to find that one reaps what one sows’.

What’s lesser thought of, though, and what should be worried about is how print papers’ decline affects street papers. For those of you not familiar with them, street papers such as The Big Issue (TBI) represent a ‘hand up, not a hand out’ for homeless and marginalised people. They buy the street papers and half of the sale price goes to them (here in Australia TBI is $5.00, so $2.50 of every sale helps a homeless or marginalised person earn a living).

Print paper extinction (which is likely where industry is heading) puts these vendors in a precarious position. How do they enable street paper vendors to sell an online version of their paper? How does the International Network of Street Papers (INSP) (AKA the world org of street papers, of which TBI is a member) make available and monetise street papers in order to continue giving people who are already struggling a chance to work and improve their lives?

The good news is that street paper sales aren’t plummeting in the same way ‘traditional’ newspapers’ are (in fact, TBI Australia has reported solid and even increased circulation in recent years). The reality is, though, that the smartphone-equipped world’s moving largely online. For this reason, street papers need to a proactive part of this. But how and what to do?

The answer, it seems, is what INSP are calling a digital street paper (#digistreetpapers if you’re on Twitter and so inclined to tweet about it). It’s a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, best explained by the video on this here good website.

In essence, customers purchase the digital paper from a vendor and access it via scanning or typing in a QR code. What follows is a customised thank-you message from the vendor, which I absolutely love and which offers a personal connection and a humanising touch to the sale—something equally as important as the sales transaction itself. The digital paper commences on the next screen, ergo you can read the paper however and wherever you are, e.g. on your smartphone on the train.

Now, I should issue a disclaimer that although I don’t work for either INSP or TBI, I have a lot to do with them: I’ve volunteered for the former and I’ve written for the latter and I’m a huge fan of their programs (INSP’s motto is ‘INSPiring change’).

I should also say that this website is asking for funds to help them get the concept off the ground. I’m not trying to push you to donate (although you are, of course, welcome to if the idea appeals), but I am asking you to have a good look through the site in its entirety and to spread the word.

Digital street papers are a quality concept and one the INSP team have spent years refining. I’m, frankly, impressed that they’ve come up with a simple, effective, still-personal answer to the problem not even the bigger end of the publishing town have been able to: how to make and monetise the move to the modern, digital age.