A Big Issue: Publishing and the pandemic

Big Issue North’s deputy editor explains why the magazine is supporting Blackpool Social Club, and why you should support the magazine during an especially difficult time for its vendors

Ten years is long enough to do any one thing so when, in the week that marked 10 years since I first wrote Big Issue North’s listings, I sat down to the familiar routine of drawing together the weekly cultural highlights across the region and there were none, I wish I could say it was a welcome change. 

Instead, it signalled the end of our social and cultural calendars for a while. A pausing of play runs, gigs gagged, art unexhibited. 

That week, as we went into lockdown, it took me the best part of my working day and a lot of scrambling around to find eight items for the newly branded what’s on(line) page. But conversely, once compiled, I saw how it opened the page up. Readers in the north could walk the length of the Hadron Collider in Geneva, take a virtual tour of the Louvre in Paris and feed Fiona, the baby hippo at the Cincinnati Zoo – all from the comfort of their new home offices, of course. 

Every week, as musicians livestreamed gigs, theatre companies broadcast recordings and galleries got to grips with 360 cameras, it’s become a little bit easier to compile, but the listings page is just one tiny example of how we, like every media outlet, cultural institution, employee and school pupil, have been forced to adapt over the past few months. I’m amazed by our collective flexibility and in moments of optimism it feels like we slipped and fell on the reset button we’ve been too browbeaten to hit. 

Our systems seemed concrete, and now they are sand. In more frequent low moments I worry that some of our vendors – as vital to us as our readers – are the grains slipping through our fingers. 

Big Issue North has now reappeared on our streets via the vendors who are safe to return to work, kitted out with full PPE and contactless card readers paid for via a hardship fund – which is also supporting those unable to return to work due to their vulnerability to the virus. For those who sell Big Issue North, magazine sales are often their only source of income – they buy the magazine for £1.50 and sell it for £3, keeping the profit they make. The rest allows us to continue to publish it.

You can now buy a digital issue, order a print copy online, take out a subscription or – for the first time in our 25-year history – buy it in Asda, Co-op, McColls and Sainsbury’s. Fifty per cent of the cover price goes directly into the hardship fund, which our brilliant outreach team is working hard to distribute on a needs basis. Proceeds from sales of our new quarterly publication, The New Issue, also benefit vendors.

While the government flailed in providing a useful response to this virus for our struggling arts and cultural institutions, artists stepped up to support communities. Creative responses have got many of us through the hardest part of lockdown and, in Big Issue North’s case, even helped keep it afloat.     

Last month, an interview I did with Blackpool-born musician Karima Francis about her new single turned into a brainstorming session for an online music festival to raise money for the hardship fund. Francis rallied 16 other acts in just a couple of weeks and hosted a 10-hour livestream called the Big Busk at Home. She and other acts – including Blackpool-band Jekyll and headliners Everything Everything – called on viewers to donate and raised over £600 for our vendors. 

Meanwhile, the brilliant women behind Blackpool Social Club were working behind the scenes to get this website ready to launch. Events may be on hold but creativity isn’t. This town is bursting with it and readers want to know about it, now more than ever. That’s why Big Issue North is proud to support this new venture.

As we emerge from lockdown and unemployment levels reach 1980s levels I expect more people will be coming through our doors hoping to sell Big Issue North. Homeless or not, we don’t turn anyone away who is desperate enough to want to do so. On the Fylde coast we have vendors regularly outside the Teanlowe Centre in Poulton and Marks & Spencer’s in St Annes but vendors on our town centre pitch tend to be transient. We’re looking for an organisation to house a sub-office in the town as the nearest collection point for magazines is in Preston. 

I’m hopeful Big Issue North can become more readily available in my hometown and I’m hopeful too that, with our diaries left unopened for a few months, people are realising that culture is more than ticketed events on a what’s-on page. Our culture is defined by the people who make up our communities and how we treat them. So if we recognise the person who used to check our coat at a gig or show us to our seat in the theatre as the person now asking us to buy Big Issue North, I hope we do. 

Antonia Charlesworth is the Blackpool-based deputy editor of Big Issue North, a street paper sold by homeless and vulnerable people across the north of England. Visit https://shop.bigissuenorth.com/ to buy a copy.


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