The Big Issue

The latest edition of The Big Issue, which is now in its 21st year

The Big Issue releases issue number 1,000 today, in the same year the title created to help homeless people, is set to celebrate its 21st birthday.

After more than 20 years of building a solid reputation as one of the magazine world's trailblazers, The Big Issue has reached a significant milestone. John Bird, one of the founders of the magazine, told Journalism.co.uk while this was quite an achievement, there is still some way to go yet.

"I feel a mix of joy and discomfort, largely because we've achieved a lot, but we've still got more work to do." Saying this, Bird recognised the magazine had changed the way people thought about homelessness since it was founded in 1991.

"I think one of the biggest problems for me when I started was that lot of people think that just to say to the homeless to go out and work was almost like you were being reactionary," he said.

Editor Paul McNamee agreed. "I guess when it started it was absolutely unique, there was nothing else like it. It started with a very clear, simple direction and reason for being and that was to get the very bottom rung a legitimate way of making a living and it built up from there."

I feel a mix of joy and discomfort, largely because we've achieved a lot, but we've still got more work to doJohn Bird
Created in response to the increasing number of homeless people in London, The Big Issue has become a staple part of British cities. From its very first issue, the magazine aimed to make a statement.

"The first issue was very powerful," said Bird. "It asked: 'Why don't homeless people all go home?', addressing the dumb way people saw homelessness at that time." The Big Issue then built a solid reputation based on a number of landmark covers and scoops.

When cult rock band The Stone Roses decided to get back together in 1994, The Big Issue had the exclusive interview. Popstar George Michael gave a much-publicised exclusive to the magazine in 1996, and since then it has had a range of guest editors including Damien Hirst, Trudie Styler and David Cameron.

Issue number 1,000 is a bumper festival edition featuring British band Kasabian's lead singer Serge Pizzorno on the front cover. McNamee joked: "Well, we had Chris Hoy's thighs on the front cover and last week we had a fist … we're working our way up to a full body now."

But what's next for The Big Issue? For McNamee, it's about maintaining the strength of its current business model and improving on its weaknesses.

"I hope the magazine manages to get a grip on the key issue of how we make sure that the model we have, in which the vendors get paid at the source for his sale and then has money in his pocket, continues. How do we maintain that?

"The vendors have very chaotic lives, so they need the money there and then. We obviously need to find a way to make sure the purity of that model isn't lost, but at the same time, engage with new technologies not in a shoddy way but in a good, professional way that serves the readers."

Now we know that online is absolutely valuable to sell the magazine, to raise awareness and build interest and get advocates for the magazinePaul McNamee
Where new media is concerned, The Big Issue has found itself in an interesting position compared to other print outlets.

"We're in a peculiar position which is in both ways a strength and a weakness. Our strength is that we need to thrive as a paper, as a product that can be taken on to the streets for people to sell.

"That is something that we need to do and get right and continue to perfect."

But McNamee acknowledges an online outlet is crucial to bringing in new readers. "There used to be an ideal within The Big Issue that didn't want to do too much online because that would take attention away from the paper and stop people buying it.

"Thankfully we've come away from that and now we know that online is absolutely valuable to sell the magazine, to raise awareness and build interest and get advocates for the magazine."

Twitter has helped to develop the magazine's profile, giving it a voice to contact its readers directly and with ease. When Chris Hoy's thighs graced the front cover, Hoy joked on the microblogging site he had a "face for magazines", which led more people to buy the issue that week, according to the editor.

McNamee said: "A lot of people within the cycling community were then drawn to the magazine and I know if I can get people to give it a go then they're more likely to come back."

Looking ahead Bird also hopes to turn the vendors into correspondents for the magazine with a new project called Big Issue Answers, which he says is "based on the whole idea of getting homeless people en masse working and earning away from the streets."

The project is in its early stages and Bird hopes to get it running this year. In the mean time, McNamee encourages people to go out and buy the magazine.

"As ever I just encourage people to buy the magazine, take it home and read it and then buy it again."

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