The Big Issue: use a streetwise pitch

As readership of the fundraising magazine soars at Christmas, Alex Black looks at the best routes for coverage

As winter takes its merciless grip, homelessness becomes a real life or death issue for those living on the streets. With the public urged by police and drug charities not to give money to beggars, many choose another way to donate straight to the source – through buying The Big Issue (TBI).

The magazine's readership doubles around Christmas. Next week's edition is a 64-page festive special featuring an interview with pop band McFly and pieces on The Big Issue Foundation's work.

It is now 14 years since former rough sleeper John Bird founded the magazine to help homeless people make a living and get off the streets. The title launched its Scotland edition in 1993, and Bird set up The Big Issue Foundation in 1995.

It shifts up to 155,000 copies in the UK every week, and has North of England and South-West editions, as well as the Scottish version and the London-based original.

TBI's unique position in British society means it is never far from the news itself. In July, for instance, an animal rights activist punched a Liverpool vendor in the face because the mag had run adverts for clinical testing company Covance despite printing editorial questioning the relevance of animal testing. The attack received widespread coverage in the nationals.

Condensed read
Editor Matt Ford describes TBI as 'similar to a magazine you'd find in a Saturday broadsheet, but more condensed and more alternative'.
'We don't cover much in the way of consumer products, so we rarely go for product launch stories. But we run book, music and film reviews, and are interested in hearing about the more alternative stuff.'

Film is an important part of the magazine's editorial agenda. It runs
an award for uncommissioned short films, which it presents at the annual Raindance Film Festival in London in early autumn.

Premier PR account director Christina Joyce says despite the 'undiscovered talent' element to its film awards, the agency's movie team has worked with TBI several times around interviews with Hollywood stars. This does not apply when it comes to TV though. TBI is more interested in 'cool' or 'kitsch' actors and shows.

'The Big Issue is unlikely to be tempted by more mainstream shows unless there is an exceptionally big name involved,' says Joyce. 'It tends to go for things such as [romantic Channel 4 drama] NYLon or actors such as John Simm.'

Quite Great PR senior press officer Lisa Burprich points out the magazine's massive reach. And as it is generally perceived as 'young and cool', it can give street cred to clients .

But pitched stories have to be a little 'different', she cautions. A story with a homelessness angle naturally has a decent chance of coverage. 'We are working with The Big Issue on an artist called Winter Roberts, who was homeless when he was younger and is raising awareness of the homeless over Christmas,' says Burprich.

The partnership came about through TBI publisher Lisa Woodman. Roberts will have a CD covermount in the issue out on 16 January, with an accompanying interview.

Literary coverage
Midas PR account manager Amelia Rowland secured an exclusive review in TBI South West of Nick Taussig's novel Love and Mayhem, which has a homeless person as a central character. The regional editions offer good opportunities for coverage. The Scottish and North of England publications each have circulations above 30,000.

'Dealing with the regional issues on an individual basis proves more productive for us, especially when working via freelance journalists,' explains Premier's Joyce. 'Actor Philip Glenister will be featuring in The Big Issue in the North for the upcoming cop drama Life on Mars for BBC1.'

Burprich cites TBI in Scotland's pick-up of a Brian Eno piece after the London edition did not go for it as an example of regional success.
With four separate weekly editions, there are plenty of opportunities for coverage and access to a predominantly young, culture-savvy audience. Just make sure it is topical, worthy and a bit different.

The Big Issue: facts and figures

UK circulation
147,900 (TBI: 72,926, TBI in Scotland: 30,131, TBI in the North: 31,259, TBI South-West: 13,584).

Press day

Thursday.

Contacts

Features desk 020 7526 3200; editor: Matt Ford (matt.ford@bigissue.com); news editor: Judy Kerr (judy.kerr@bigissue.com); publisher: Lisa Woodman (lisa.woodman@bigissue.com).

How it pitches itself
'TBI is a pop culture title aimed predominantly at the 25 to 40-year-old market,' says Ford. 

The readership
Very broad. People will often buy it for the sake of supporting a good cause, but probably wouldn't buy a publication with similar content that didn't have a charity association.

How does the newsdesk work?
TBI's news covers a mixture of homelessness, charity and society-based current affairs, as well as more mainstream news. Exclusivity from the nationals is a must.

The feature and review content
'The rest of the mag revolves around music, film, travel and the arts, with "serious" features tackling societal issues and celeb profiles,' says Ford. 'The lead time for features is around six weeks, but as our content is similar to monthly arts titles, this can be longer. Lead time for reviews is anything up to a month.'

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