Moving indoors and online, can street papers survive coronavirus crisis?

by Sarah Shearman | @shearmans | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 1 April 2020 21:59 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A homeless man sells The Big Issue magazine outside a tube station in north London, Britain December 23, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville

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Social distancing measures introduced to slow the spread of coronavirus have forced street papers to reinvent themselves or risk collapse.

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By Sarah Shearman

LONDON, April 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Big Issue, a British paper sold by homeless and vulnerable people, has moved off the streets and onto supermarket shelves for the first time as coronavirus threatens the future of similar ventures worldwide.

Trading for almost three decades, The Big Issue is one of Britain's best known social enterprises - businesses that aim to do good - and has inspired dozens of street papers globally.

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Social distancing measures introduced to slow the spread of coronavirus have forced street papers, which rely on person-to-person interaction, to reinvent themselves or risk collapse.

As nations go into lockdown, the 100 street papers in 35 countries are fighting for survival, according to the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), a Glasgow-based charity.

"As a former rough-sleeping, street-drinking, ex-offender, I don't want desert the people I've come to honour," said John Bird, founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue.

"I look upon this as the greatest challenge of my life," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Big Issue provided a way for customers to connect in person with homeless people, and that lost interaction leaves the paper without a critically unique selling point, Bird said.

"That kind of humanising has been a major, major piece of our work," he said.

From Thursday, major British supermarket Sainsbury's will be selling The Big Issue in hundreds of stores and online, while newsagent McColl's will stock it in stores as well until vendors can work again.

The social enterprise plans to give half of sales to its 2,000 vendors, who since March 22 have been forced to stop selling the paper.

The Big Issue is asking supporters to buy a subscription or donate cash and said it has already raised and distributed £25,000 ($31,000 U.S.) to 1,000 vendors over the past four days.

"I want to make sure every penny we raise, as we have done studiously over the last 29 years, is always shared with the most dispossessed people on earth," Bird said.

Nearly all of The Big Issue's revenues come from sales, and just 10% through advertising, having sold 200 million copies of the weekly magazine since its 1991 launch, Bird said.

"With the removal of the streets, we have no income, and that is why we are rushing around creating new ways of selling," said Bird.

SOCIAL INTERACTION

More than 20,000 vendors earn an income by selling street papers each year, earning a total of £24 million ($30,000) every year, according to the INSP.

"The vendors also rely on the social interactions that transaction provides, increasing their visibility – that is almost as vital to them as the income it provides," said Maree Aldam, chief executive of INSP.

Most of the INSP street papers have stopped or plan to stop publishing physical copies and focus on digital versions.

Seoul-based Big Issue Korea was still being sold on the streets but started a fund to help vendors who have seen a decline in sales.

While some were selling copies in shops, that has become harder as non-essential retailers close their doors.

Sweden's Faktum street paper has switched to digital subscriptions.

Others have turned to fundraising. Serbian street paper Liceulice's plea for support caused its website to crash on the first night with a rush of donations.

Chicago-based StreetWise put up posters of vendors at their usual spots and is asking customers to send them cashless donations.

(Reporting by Sarah Shearman @Shearmans. Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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