Thursday, March 22, 2007

I'm so glad I've moved out of London...

I've been asked by several journalists to comment on the news that Big Issue boss John Bird claims he's going to run for Mayor of London - and a word of caution here, which anyone who's ever worked with John will understand, that's "claims".

I've declined, because I feel I said everything I had to say on the matter here , five years ago.

But it bears repeating.

In the week following mass editorial redundancies at the magazine, ex-deputy editor Adam Macqueen gives the inside story on how it all went wrong

Monday July 1, 2002
The Guardian

The edition of the Big Issue which came out this morning is, in its way, as historic as the very first which erupted onto the streets of London in September 1991, proudly displaying its provocative, campaigning, bloody-mindedness with its very first cover line: Why Don't The Homeless Just Go Home. This week's issue - number 496 - is the last to be produced by a single centralised editorial team in London, and it marks the departure of Gibby Zobel, the news editor, his deputy Max Daly, Tina Jackson, the arts editor, Sam Hart, the assistant editor, Mike Power, the chief sub, Michael Branthwaite, the art director, and myself.
I joined the Big Issue three years ago: in May 2000 I was promoted to deputy editor, and for the last six weeks I have worked - unwillingly, but contractually obliged to - as acting editor after the departure of Matthew Collin, who did more for the magazine's provocative, hard-hitting, grassroots social justice agenda than any other editor in the publication's extraordinary 10-and-a-half year history.

All the staff named above opted to take voluntary redundancy, faced with the option of taking the second 10% cut in budget and staffing in just over six months. They knew that it would mean we were unable to produce the magazine we wanted to produce, and that we knew the vendors deserved to sell. I had resigned in March, and so found myself in the unlikely position of having to work out my notice period in a promoted but redundant position.

From August (the rest of this month will see a series of retrospective "best of" issues), the magazine will be produced by a team straddling the London and Manchester Big Issues - two entirely separate companies, whose relationship at both editorial and managerial levels in recent years has been largely non-existent. Features - on a reduced budget - will be commissioned from Manchester, with London having the option to reject them at subbing stage. The news agenda, which management promises will remain at the heart of the magazine's mission, will continue to be provided by London - but where a year ago there were four full-timers on the newsdesk, there will now be only one.

It is an extraordinary way to try to produce a magazine, but the managing director, Jeff Mitchell, has assured me that "innovative" is a better description for it than the words I chose, and it's certainly more printable.

Whatever happens, I will still spend £1.20 each week on the magazine, because I think it represents the best way I know of to begin to help people out of homelessness. It provides empowerment; money they have earned through hard graft that comes with no rules to tell them how to spend it. They control the consequences. It teaches vendors how to run their own business. It doesn't seem to be a lesson the company's management have ever learned themselves.

It was with a weary familiarity that staff shuffled into the meeting room at the company's south London HQ at the end of April to receive news of the latest cutbacks. Last September, just days after the magazine's triumphant 10th birthday celebrations, in the face of the advertising downturn and massive financial outlays elsewhere in the company, we had been told of a shocking projected loss for the organisation. "We just can't go on saying, 'Oh, well, it's The Big Issue, we've always been a bit crap at managing things,'" complained one long-serving member of staff. But people were fired in most departments, budgets were slashed, everyone worked harder, morale plummeted. And six months on, we were being reconvened to be told the projections were worse. Much worse.

Founder and editor-in-chief John Bird didn't come to either of these staff meetings. After the company had sold and moved out of its one remaining property, in King's Cross, in March 2001, he didn't pitch up at the new rented offices much at all. I first met him a few months after I had joined the Big Issue full-time. I'd been writing for it for a year or so before that. I told him this, but the editor-in-chief proudly told me he never read the magazine.

At the time he was out working on the Big Issue Los Angeles (TBILA). You can debate endlessly about the wisdom of setting up a street paper in the one city in the world where, famously, everyone travels by car - we did back in London, not that we got to bring the matter up with John. Except for once: tackled on the tickly subject of the substantial startup "loan" which the London Big Issue had granted to the project, which John openly admitted we would never get back, he turned into George III, screaming at a packed staff meeting: "I don't want to hear any more about America! America doesn't exist!" He didn't attend any more full staff meetings for a further two years.

Later TBILA was transformed into something called Off The Wall, a free fold-out poster distributed by a few salaried homeless people around bars and clubs in LA which linked to editorial content on a website. There was one problem with the plan: most of that editorial content came from the London Big Issue, and payments to freelancers for online use of their work had never been factored into the business plan. Unsurprisingly few writers were enthusiastic about giving their second use rights for interviews with stars such as Radiohead and Gary Oldman away for free. Off The Wall was as short-lived as its predecessor; it was suspended in June 2001. Nigel Kershaw, a long-time ally of John's and the "international chairman" of the company, stayed in LA until April 2002, amidst endless rumours of pending funding from outside sources for other grand projects. Both he and his girlfriend Una Devine were paid salaries by The Big Issue while they were out there.

But LA was just the expensive tip of the iceberg. Money seemed to be handed out willy-nilly to projects that sprang from people John had met in pubs, or in the Groucho club, tied to contracts that could never work out in our favour: websites that promised sales-boosting copy teasers and free email for all vendors but were never completed or not updated for years at a time; books we couldn't give away as competition prizes that gathered dust by the crateful in the cellars of the building; promotional nights with nightclubs that promoted only their music; and, in the realms beyond satire, two self-explanatory projects that originated elsewhere in the organisation and never saw the light of day, The Bag Issue and The Big Tissue.

The last two came during a period where puns seemed to be the main motivation for projects - John also bought full-page ads in the national press in late 2000, entitled The Bug Issue, requesting that the public phone in and tell an answerphone what was annoying them. Nothing was ever done with the responses.

This was the pattern with John's side projects - at meetings he would repeat over and over again that he was "an entrepreneur, an ideas man", and refuse to commit to a concrete decision on anything. Members of staff were recruited to plan elaborate promotional campaigns for him, only for him to get bored and abandon them when the results were presented.

By contrast, those projects that did get off the ground - a series of web ventures with Tony Cook, the man behind Red Pepper, and their Social Brokers scheme which aims to marry the opposing concepts of ethical investment and venture capitalism - are loyally championed, and cross-promotion in the magazine is encouraged. For the past year the story-telling website ABC Tales, edited by John's daughter Diane, has been plugged each week as a sponsor of the magazine's Street Lights pages of creative writing by vendors. Lucie Russell, head of sister charity The Big Issue Foundation, told me in May that ABC Tales had never paid any money to Street Lights.

Sadly, John was less willing to be seen to back his original scheme, the magazine. After we moved from Kings Cross in an attempt to postpone financial crisis by selling the company's only property (we didn't actually have anywhere to move into at the time), John was seldom seen in the company's offices. He moved to Lille to write his autobiography. Meetings were called off-site when he was in town, then cancelled at the last minute again and again.

The only guaranteed way to get his attention seemed to be to mention a press interview he could do, or to question the wisdom of continuing to fund his side projects while staff were being laid off on the magazine and, far more importantly, on the frontline where they dealt with vendors. That would often earn a foul-mouthed telephone rant and threats to "sack the fucking lot of you" before he calmed down.

Day to day running over the past 18 months has been left to Mitchell, a young managing director whose previous experience was with the Big Issue's off-shoot in the south west. His is a very different style of management to John's, involving overhead projections, the commissioning of "branding exercises" and endless memos filled with incomprehensible gobbledygook.

Asked how he saw the magazine developing editorially, he spoke vaguely about "self-fulfillment", "non-judgmentalism", and "moving through ideas of personal and community wellbeing". In the meantime, vendor numbers fell and magazine sales plummeted. A promised new distribution point to replace the two that closed in London with the move from Kings Cross has not yet materialised. The number of staff who sell magazines to vendors and are the point of contact for problems they have both on and off their pitches has been scaled down to a bare minimum.

I wish the small team that will be left behind in London, and their counterparts in Manchester, all the luck in the world with the new-style magazine. I hope it will continue to force new and vital topics into the mainstream agenda as it did with homelessness, the anti-globalisation movement and the countless other issues where it gave the overlooked and disenfranchised a voice and visibility they could find nowhere else.

I hope it will continue to foster and cultivate the writing of young journalists from all manner of backgrounds. Most of all I hope that it will continue to provide an outlet and a role for those on the fringes of society, and force us to recognise that these are people with complex problems and a right to make a living like the rest of us, not statistics or public embarrassments.

When editor Matthew Collin phoned John to tell him he was applying for voluntary redundancy, along with most of his staff, the editor-in-chief spluttered that he would call him back. He never did.

He did emerge for the meeting where the new production plans were announced to the whole organisation - after reports in this paper and elsewhere had badly shaken the senior management of the company. It was a John performance of old: the rough diamond charming the crowd, raising a laugh, promising the earth, saying nothing.

"I want us to go back to being an academy for young journalists, on their first, second job," he told us. "We're going to get back to the spirit of the old days when we first started." A few weeks later, he took me out for a drink to find out why, in his own words, "the editorial team are so pissed off". He spent the bulk of the time reminiscing over the early days of the Big Issue. "I think everyone who's managed this company has made some big cock-ups, and mine were probably the biggest, but I got away with it," he mused.

It was that very spirit of cobbled-togetherness, that feeling that it probably wouldn't work, so we should probably try anyway and sod the consequences, that made The Big Issue a success. It is also what has finished it in its original incarnation. If the new version is to be a success, the directors of the company have got to start learning from their mistakes.


Andrew Zalotocky said...

Five years on, how has the Big Issue changed? As far as you can tell from outside, were the problems you described ever resolved?

Adam Macqueen said...

Jeff Mitchell was disposed of and they re-hired the very capable Lisa Woodhead as publisher, who I think did a lot to build up the advertising side of the business - but in editorial terms, it's produced on a zero budget by a handful of people with very little experience, and it really shows.

Other than that I don't really know - I'm far too much on the outside to comment. But on two occasions in the last five years I've been contacted by recently-departed members of staff who were involved on the vandor-relations side of things - one an extremely hard-working and conscientious ex-vendor himself, who'd worked his way up into a position of considerable responsiblility - both of whom were spitting blood about John Bird and claiming the company was still horribly mismanaged.