In June this year, The Big Issue will celebrate its 20th anniversary in Australia. But the man who has been its editor for almost half that time, Alan Attwood, will not be there. At least, not in his current capacity.
After nine and a half years, Attwood decided to step down from the magazine at the start of the year. His last day will be Friday, April 8.
Attwood says he’s been there a very long time, and there are other things he wants to do. “Nothing very exciting or dramatic, but it’s hard to do those things while I’m doing a full-time job here,” he said.
“I also did like the idea of joining the very small club of editors who’ve chosen their own time of departure, rather than being sacked. Editors are a bit like football coaches — they tend to be pushed.”
Anyway, Attwood says, when he took the gig in 2006 he thought he would only stay about three years. “I stayed so long because there’s something magically seductive about this place.”
The Big Issue started in the UK as a way to provide employment for the homeless. Homeless vendors sell the magazines, keeping half the cover price, with the rest going back to the foundation. Attwood is the Australian magazine’s longest-serving editor, and during his tenure, the magazine’s circulation has mostly held steady (it sells between 26,000 to 27,000 per issue, which isn’t far off the 29,000 it sold in mid-2014), despite the ruptures in print and a rising cover price.
The magazine’s strategy, and its purpose, has helped it hold its own and defy the trend, Attwood says. “It gets back to the nature of the publication. People understand they’re helping someone by buying the magazine. That’s terrific. Our main concern has been to put together a publication that’s interesting, lively and relevant. We hope that people might buy one out of a sense of charity, but then decide to keep buying it because it’s good.”
But the foundation does much more than the magazine — it runs a range of enterprises aimed at directly helping the homeless. Crikey has been told that some involved with the magazine are concerned the charity is spreading itself too thin — resources are always tight, and there’s a natural tension between creating and promoting a journalistic product readers are keen to buy, and putting money and focus into things that more directly help the homeless.
What links all the organisation’s activities together is a focus on “sustainable solutions to homelessness”, a spokesperson told Crikey. “We provide vulnerable men and women with the opportunity to earn an income through a number of ways: selling The Big Issue magazine on the street, packing subscriptions through the Women’s Subscription Enterprise or educating students about social issues as a guest speaker for The Big Issue Classroom. In addition to providing these work opportunities, The Big Issue operates a Community Street Soccer Program to foster social inclusion and improve participants’ health. Our latest initiative, Homes for Homes, addresses Australia’s shortage of low-cost and social housing.”
Before he took the job, Attwood had been at The Age for 18 years. “When I left [The Age] in 2003, I thought I might have been done with journalism,” he said. “But I got in touch with The Big Issue, said I liked what they did and offered to help. I started writing a column, then came in to help out with proof-reading.” He liked it, he says, because the morale was better than what he’d been used to at Fairfax. One thing led to another, and Attwood ended up editor in late 2006.
He says one of the things he’s tried to do during that time is avoid what he terms “expert journalism”.
“Too much of journalism is based on experts — you see the same old names again and again. The dial-a-quote people. I much prefer the idea of letting people tell their own stories. We’ve had a few editions on mental illnesses — don’t get stories from psychologists, but get them by people living with mental illness, or people close to them. We’ve done that in all kinds of ways across the magazine.”
With each new edition, The Big Issue holds a launch breakfast in its Melbourne office for local vendors. The editor then goes through what’s in the edition. The tradition, which predates Attwood, is very useful, he says — it gave him instant feedback on the magazine’s content from the people who have to sell it. Vendors pick up copies from the editorial office. The regular contact, Attwood says, is a big part of what he likes about the job.
With all that, and a birthday party to plan, things are busy at Big Issue HQ. The search for a new editor, meanwhile, is ongoing.