Tucked away in the Northern Quarter of Manchester lies the Big Issue office, where I’ll be doing a week-long journalism placement. It’s not what I’m expecting from a newspaper’s HQ. Having done work experience at the Manchester Evening News I’m familiar with daunting, huge office blocks and bustling newsrooms. This however is a smallish, fairly nondescript building at the end of a road covered in street art with poetry engraved into the paving stones.
I’ve been told to meet the editor at the sales desk, but I’m slightly early (various incidents of getting embarrassingly and completely lost on my way to work placements have taught me to err on the side of caution) so I wait. Vendors are coming in to collect their copies of the magazines for the day. The artwork in the room is striking – a selection of illustrated poems lines the wall, mostly depicting shadowy figures, but one of a dragonfly stands out. It turns out these have been created by sellers; as well as the production of the magazine, the Big Issue runs an outreach programme for homeless people. One poem starts with the words ‘I’m not just a Big Issue seller, I am a storyteller’.
Kevin, the editor, arrives and shows me the editorial office. Again, it is smaller than I’d expected, but it is a good environment for interns and there is work for me to do straight away. The first job is the weekly theatre listings; I am also assigned some book reviews for the arts section. Two years into my degree, the art of forming an opinion based on a skim-read of a book is a skill I have carefully honed, although the format is slightly different. Summarising key points into succinct 50-word blocks is somehow more satisfying than trying to pad out an essay to 2,000 words.
The Big Issue is first and foremost a business, not a charity. Yet this isn’t a form of the unscrupulousness often cynically attributed to the journalism industry post-Leveson Inquiry. Rather, it is the notion that the transaction between the company and the sellers is at the core of the magazine; vendors buy the magazine for £1, sell it for £2, and keep the resulting pound profit. They have to sell a minimum of 40 magazines per week to be allowed a permanent pitch, and follow a strict code of conduct. The magazine is a lifeline for those who are homeless (for a variety of different reasons) and often have difficulty finding employment. The slogan ‘working not begging’ is key – for the sellers, the job gives a boost to their self esteem as well as their income.
The big stories this week are an interview with Joe Dempsie about Game of Thrones and a feature on a man brought up in the midst of crime who has benefitted from a new prison resettlement scheme. There is also a strong northern focus; I hadn’t realised that the Big Issue and the Big Issue in the North are two independent organisations. Whilst it is not a magazine focusing on homelessness, the exception is the one weekly ‘Street Life’ page, and my first news story is a full page piece about a scheme in Liverpool providing a step between hostels and independent living.
Work in the office is fairly relaxed, but I find there is still always something to get on with. Having heard stories of wannabe journos spending placement after placement on the dreaded tasks of photocopying and tea-making before getting that elusive first byline, I’m lucky to be able to write articles right from the start, and try out writing for both the news and arts sections. Far from the stereotype of journalists with their doom and gloom approach towards the whole industry, the Big Issue office has a lively atmosphere; it seems that all the team thoroughly enjoy their work. I wonder how much this has to do with the knowledge that the magazine is helping all kinds of people.
By Thursday, the magazine is taking shape. All the main stories have been written up and I watch as one of the features is laid out. I work on a competition write-up and a synopsis of the magazine to be given to sellers. I also get to research and write a weekly feature summarising the most bizarre news stories of the previous week. Two which make the cut are a man who woke up after a night drinking to find himself confronted by a 10ft python he’d apparently bought while drunk, and a live bomb discovered inside a squid at a fish market in Japan. There is plenty of proofreading to be done and I happily savage typos and stray apostrophes with my red pen. One by one the sections of the magazine are finalised, and Mark, a designer, shows me how they are formatted to send to the printers. It’s especially exciting seeing the pages I’ve worked on in their final incarnation, as well as seeing the preparations for the digital edition. With print media in decline, it’s important for editors to keep up to date with technology, and so a recent development is that some Big Issue vendors sell unique codes to access the magazine as an e-book.
As the week goes on I find myself looking at Manchester more closely, taking note of the Big Issue vendors I pass each day. It’s reassuring to have found a branch of the media that cares more about sending out a positive message than scooping the biggest scandals, and one which gives its interns such a positive insight into the industry.