Magazine “Ireland’s Big Issue” Goes Digital to Survive, Leaving Homeless Street Vendors Nothing to Sell

For close to 25 years, homeless people in Dublin sold Ireland’s Big Issue on the streets, making €1.50 for each paper sold.

That helped them to survive – especially those unable to get social-welfare payments.

But the on-street sales stopped in March 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 restrictions, says the company’s owner, Sean Kavanagh.

Ireland’s Big Issue went digital, and Kavanagh doesn’t plan to resume selling print magazines, he says. “A combination of factors made it virtually impossible to keep going on the streets.”

Among other things, fewer people carry cash these days and he had to give up his offices because of a rent increase, he says.

Rosemary Fearsaor-Hughes, who used to sell the paper, says that not all vendors are happy with that move and they want the physical magazine back. “It was a lifeline for people.”

Fearsaor-Hughes says that she has found the company’s communications on its website and in call-outs confusing. They gave the impression that funds raised support the vendors when they don’t, she says.

Kavanagh says that any profits made by the digital Big Issue will go into his non-profit organisation Irish Homeless Street Leagues.

Giving People a Hand up

The original Big Issue was founded in the United Kingdom in 1991.

There, it is a social enterprise. The entertainment and current affairs magazine is written by professional journalists and sold on the streets by homeless people or others in vulnerable housing situations.

Ireland’s Big Issue, a private limited company owned by Sean Kavanagh, isn’t connected to the Big Issue in the UK beyond having a very similar name.

It is part of his Newlands Publishing, which counts 17 business names under its umbrella, including titles such as Ireland’s Golf Directory and Ireland’s Wedding Directory. But none of the other publications are operational, he says.

There has never been any question that it was a charity, says Kavanagh. Ireland’sBig Issue is just a limited company”.

In the past, the other publications within Newlands Publishing helped to subsidise Ireland’s Big Issue, he says. “It was always a struggle. It wasn’t a profit-making entity.”

Kavanagh tried to keep it going as long as he could because he knew that it benefitted the vendors, he says. “We were aware that people were dependent on it.”

Ireland’s Big Issue was a member of the International Network of Street Papers but that membership ended this year because it’s no longer a vendor-based model, said a spokesperson for the network.

“The key value we insist upon is ensuring that the street paper creates a sustainable income source for the vendors it serves – all profits the vendors make from selling the magazine go directly into their own pockets,” the spokesperson said.

Fearsaor-Hughes has taken to Twitter to criticise Ireland’s Big Issue’s decision to move away from the vendor model. “That is all well and good but vendors on the ground are left unsupported,” she wrote in November 2021.

Fearsaor-Hughes says there has been a lack of consultation and communication around the changes. Ireland’s Big Issue has not provided any support for vendors who lost income when it went digital, she says.

She thinks Ireland’s Big Issue could have done more to provide support and signpost other services to assist vendors with the transition and through the restrictions, she says.

Kavanagh says that when Ireland’s Big Issue was up and running it signposted people to food centres, homeless charities, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive and the social welfare offices.

When Covid-19 restrictions began, like everyone else, he thought that the restrictions were temporary, he says, that they would only last a few months.

Most vendors were aware of the other agencies that offer support, he says. “They would be all fairly well clued into a lot of that.” Although, not all vendors are entitled to social welfare, he agreed.

In September 2020, Ireland’s Big Issue account had blocked Fearsaor-Hughes on Twitter. She says this was after she raised concerns about the changes to the company’s model.

Kavanagh says that was a mix-up: because she had two Twitter accounts, staff thought one might be a fake, and soon after she was unblocked.

Going Digital

Kavanagh also founded the Irish Homeless Street Leagues in 2004. The non-profit organisation harnesses the power of sport to change people’s lives, he says.

It encourages homeless people to join soccer teams and some of them go on to represent Ireland in the homeless world cup, says Kavanagh. “It changes their lives totally.”

He wants to keep running Ireland’s Big Issue in its digital form and donate any profits from it to further develop the Irish Homeless Street Leagues, he says. “So people can see what people can achieve given a chance.”

Fearsaor-Hughes says that’s no use to the vendors who relied on selling the paper to earn a bit of money.

It was honest work that provided them with dignity, she says, and she wants to see the physical magazine back on the streets of Dublin.

The Big Issue in the UK adapted to the Covid-19 restrictions and the fact that most people stopped carrying cash, she says. “Big Issue UK got SumUp card readers for its vendors.”

Kavanagh says they cannot resume selling the print magazine as there were too many problems, including that he no longer has a premises.

Interest had been waning in recent years too, he says, as fewer young people were interested in selling the magazine.

His last print run was 5,000 magazines, he says. The magazine also runs advertising, and has around 350 subscribers, he says.

Appeals for Donations

Fearsaor-Hughes says Ireland’s Big Issue’s communication with its readers has been confusing, given the company has not supported vendors since March 2020.

Its pleas for donations could be read as indicating that the money goes to vendors, she says.

The website on 28 July 2022said that the company supports vendors and included vendor’s testimonials.

“Our self-employed vendors purchase the magazine from us and sell them on at a profit - they are micro entrepreneurs,” said the website.

Kavanagh says that he is working on a new website which will clearly outline the new business model.

“That website was put together before we became fully aware of the full implications of Covid,” he says. “The old testimonials I admit may be a bit confusing. However, I’m sure anyone reading the website will be aware our current status has changed.”

By Tuesday, the website had changed and no longer referenced vendors. “Help us to continue fighting under-represented voices [sic] & continue bringing you justice-driven journalism,” it says.

Fearsor-Hughes says that the change in approach hasn’t been clearly communicated to vendors, either, some of whom are still hopeful that the company will resume printing magazines.

As well as the website, Ireland’s Big Issue has put out pleas for donations. In May 2020, Ireland’s Big Issue put out a press release calling for donations of £3, which was published on the Church of Ireland Diocese of Conor website.

“These are uncertain times for every business, but for those who are homeless or in vulnerable housing and depend on their Big Issue sales to make a living, things are very bleak indeed,” it says. “Many of our vendors use their takings to fund a bed for the night and essential food and toiletries.”

Donations will help to keep the magazine alive until the vendors can return to the streets, it says.

On its website too, it has asked since March 2020 for donations to help keep the magazine afloat during restrictions.

At times though some posts appeared to indicate that donations would help homeless vendors. “Contribute the price of a coffee if you can as our #homeless vendors can’t sell on the streets right now,” says a tweet from May 2021, more than a year after the magazine went digital.

Kavanagh says keeping the magazine alive so that vendors could benefit on its return was the thinking.

“We offered the magazine free of charge to the public but obviously we still had bills to pay, rent, utilities, design, photo agency fees, journalists, it was very difficult to stay afloat as you can imagine,” he says.

Kavanagh says that none of the money donated to Ireland’s Big Issue since March 2020 has gone to those who used to sell the paper before it went digital. It has gone into running costs, he says, and any profits to the homeless street leagues.

Since November 2021, the cover of the magazine shows that the magazine supports the homeless street leagues.

“Our support for the Irish Homeless Street Leagues goes beyond financial contributions,” says Kavanagh. “We use our facilities to promote the leagues both in terms of publicity, PR, manpower, as well as financial contributions.”

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Author:

Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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