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From setting up his own music magazine in Belfast with Colin Murray to becoming the hugely successful UK editor of The Big Issue, Paul McNamee on how his barman dad and hairdresser mum pushed him to do well at school and why Brexit could impact on homelessness

Overseeing the UK edition of a publication that sells on four continents is no easy task, but this Ballymena man has flourished in his role by championing voices that are often ignored by the mainstream media

By Lindy McDowell

Paul McNamee (45) is the UK editor of The Big Issue, that iconic publication founded by John Bird and Gordon Roddick in 1991 as a means of providing work and income for homeless people. The magazine now sells in four continents and is the world’s most widely circulated street newspaper. McNamee was appointed in 2011, the first time that The Big Issue in the UK had a single editor across all national, regional and online editions.

Married to journalist Jane Graham (Jane’s a former Belfast Telegraph columnist) he has been named Magazine Editor of the Year three times by leading publishing industry body PPA Scotland and was named British Editor of The Year in 2013 and 2016 by the BSME (British Society of Magazine Editors).

A regular contributor to the BBC, he has worked for a diverse range of local and national publications including not least, Blank, the Belfast music magazine he founded back in the 90s with broadcaster, Colin Murray.

In the wake of shocking statistics revealing that over 440 homeless people have been found dead on the streets of the UK in the past year, here he outlines what needs to be done to help. He also talks about the challenges of editing a magazine which has to appeal to a readership “from 15 to 85” ... and the cat that occasionally helps sell it.

Q. You’re a Ballymena man, aren’t you?

A. I am. Well, I was born in Belfast but we moved to Ballymena when I was very young and I lived there until I left to go to university. My dad, Charlie, was, and still is, a barman. My mother, Maura, was a hairdresser, sometimes a hospital cleaner.

There are loads of us. I have two sisters and three brothers. For my parents it was all about education. They hadn’t had that opportunity themselves so they saw it as a route to success. They pushed us and pushed us and we all went through St Louis’s Grammar in Ballymena.

I ended up in Preston at the University of Central Lancashire where I did French and Media Technology. My French now is pretty poor. Our daughter Annie, who is 15, is almost as good as I am. We’ve also got a son, Johnnie, who’s almost 12. My wife, Jane Graham, is an arts journalist. We met in London when I was working for NME and she was working for Radio One as a producer.

Q. How did you get into journalism?

A. I’d an interest in journalism for as long as I can remember really. I’d wanted to be a sports journalist at first because I thought it would be a good way to get in to watch football and get paid for it. But because I didn’t know anybody — I didn’t come from a family with that background — I just didn’t know where to start.

The first job I had was with Lower North Belfast Community Council on the Shore Road. They were looking to start a community paper. I think they were looking to bring up their quota of Catholics so I got a job and I started producing their community news sheet/paper for them. I had to learn to do things as I went, speaking to people on the ground, getting advertising in, putting it all together.

I realised pretty quickly I needed more experience so I got into a journalism course. From there I went to the Fermanagh Herald — that’s where I started to learn. It was tricky enough because I was still living in Belfast so I had to get the bus down and up every day.

But it toughened me up. You’re going into an environment you don’t really know. It was quite a vibrant local newspaper. But I knew I wanted to do something else so pretty soon afterwards I moved on. 

Q. You set up your own magazine?

A. Yes. Colin Murray and I were friendly at the time. He’s a great guy. I was working in a bar in the Limelight and he was deejaying. We were talking about starting a magazine but we didn’t know how to do it. We got funding from people like LEDU and the Prince’s Trust and we set up Blank — a music magazine.

It was moderately successful in its own little way except that we didn’t know what the f*** we were doing. We couldn’t manage money or anything. But the thing that I’m proud of is that the people who came through it — Colin was barely 20, I was in my early 20s — we’ve all moved on to something else. Some are working in the BBC and radio production, one is moving between San Francisco and Belfast doing weird tech stuff that I don’t quite understand.

Colin Carberry came through as well — he wrote Good Vibrations — as well as journalist Maeve Quigley, who worked at the Belfast Telegraph for a while.

Q. And then you moved to London?

A. I’d started doing bits of stringing work for the NME. I’d fill in for holidays when people were off on the newsdesk and eventually a job came up. I stayed with them for about four years. I also freelanced for a while and did work for the Belfast Telegraph, the Irish Times, the Guardian, different publications in Europe and America.

Then another magazine was being set up in Belfast. I should have smelt that it wasn’t right from the start but they were offering steady work. It was a kids’ magazine called Brat. The money behind it wasn’t enough. It went to the wall really quickly. But it had some good stuff in it. And again we’d good people — one of the guys who came out of it was Rodney Edwards, who’s now deputy editor of the Impartial Reporter, a fantastic journalist.

As Brat was failing — and, boy, did it fail — the guy who was chief executive of The Big Issue in Britain at that time had seen it. They were making some changes to The Big Issue in Scotland and he asked if I would go over and take a look. Jane, my wife, is Scottish and we’d been thinking about moving over and settling there anyway. So I went over as the deputy editor of the Scottish edition. Then I became editor of the Scottish edition and then editor of the Scottish and Welsh editions when they amalgamated. Then around 2011 the organisation decided to make it one magazine because until that point there’d been regional editions. So I took over as the national editor.

Q. Isn’t it a tricky job producing a magazine which isn’t pitched at a specific market, where you have to be all things to all readers?

A. The Big Issue will always have a residual sale of people who have a real connection to individual vendors. Come hell or high water they will find the vendors and they’ll talk in very personal terms about “my vendor”. So I always knew that there would be people who would buy the product to support the vendor. But that’s not enough to build a title, to build an identity.

My first goal was to make it a magazine that people really wanted to read again and again and would come back to. It took some time. I made a lot of mistakes. But John Bird, (left, Baron Bird MBE), the founder, he’s been great. So supportive. He allowed me to make mistakes. He used to ring me up at all hours asking me what I was doing with his magazine. He doesn’t do that quite so much now! What we did was, rather than aiming at a specific age group or whatever, we said: “Let’s have a magazine that deals with things people engage with and that they like. So it will bring together people from 15 to 85 if it’s got something that they feel speaks to them.”

That’s been the driver — making sure that we’ve got something to say and that we say it with some confidence, some authority. We’ve worked really hard and we’ve put on sales for the last three years. There’s ways to do it but making sure the readers trust you, that’s really, really important. That trust.

Q. Do you get much feedback from your vendors on magazine content that they feel sells well?

A. All the time. Every week. Every day I’m out chatting to them. It’s about learning to listen to what they’re telling you without changing everything because each vendor will have a slightly different attitude.

There’s a couple of thousand out there so if you made all the changes they wanted, you’d tie yourself up in knots. I’ve learnt that there are certain things that work.

The cover is key to The Big Issue. It’s got to be attractive enough to make people want to look at it because sometimes they don’t even want to look at the vendor, they keep their eyes down. And it’s got to be different from the week before so that readers know that they haven’t bought that one.

A vendor said to me: “All you have to do is to put either Dr Who or the Muppets on the front cover.” And I said: “That would get tired really quickly.” But it is true. There are certain things that work well for us. I don’t know if you’ve heard of A Street Cat Named Bob? It started with a guy selling The Big Issue. He had a cat. It was his companion and was helping him overcome various problems and then a publisher got hold of this, thought it was a great story, it became a book, then a number of books, then a film — it’s a one cat industry.

And if we put that cat on the cover, the magazine shifts. But again, you’ve got to think, when’s the best time to do that? Is it coming up to Christmas? Is it coming out of Christmas? Is it when you’ve got something to say— rather that just put a cat on the cover?

Q. You’ve gone out on the street yourself to experience what it’s like selling the magazine. What was that like?

A. I did but only for a very short time and I knew there was a start and a finish, so a slightly false situation. What you very quickly realise is that you become pretty invisible.

I was wearing a bright red Big Issue tabard, I was holding up the magazine and I was doing it in Long Acre in the middle of London, one of the busiest areas in central London, but if people don’t want to see you, they don’t see you. Vendors talk about their regulars coming along and I can see how that becomes really important because that’s a constant.

Also, I can see how they need to develop particular sales skills to attract attention and how they need to be thick-skinned. Because people do shout abuse. There are people with a really heightened sense of their own self-belief who think that they’re better than somebody on the street.

So vendors have to adapt to that. Some of them may have mental health problems or they may have had addiction issues so that’s going to be doubly hard for them.

The thing that it taught me, and I’d advise people to try it so that they can understand, is that it’s a hundred times harder than you imagine. You just feel the utmost respect for the people who do it. You start to think beyond, that’s just somebody selling The Big Issue therefore I don’t have to afford them any time, money or respect.

Q. What’s going on here in Northern Ireland where you’ve got people in various places standing with a laminated copy of the Big Issue?

A. I don’t really know about that so I can’t really comment. I can tell you from our perspective what we do in Britain. There’s a code of conduct that the vendors have to adhere to. They can’t sit down for instance. They have to maintain a respectful attitude towards people, they have to pass over the magazine and not say “This is my last copy.”

One of the reasons why The Big Issue is quite expensive to run is that we’ve got a lot of distribution staff around the place to help vendors and to make sure that the public trust the vendors and that the vendors are okay from members of the public.

We certainly encourage the idea that The Big Issue is an alternative to begging. There’s part of The Big Issue called The Big Issue Foundation, a charitable arm. The Big Issue is a business, its profits are reinvested to help the Foundation. Outreach workers work with distribution staff to try and encourage beggars to stop begging, to seek money by helping to sell the magazine.

Q. The shocking scale of deaths of homeless people on the streets has been in the headlines. That must be even more horrifying when you’re close to it?

A. Yes it is. But we always suspected that that was true and we kept trying to tell people: “This is the reality.” You know, there are a lot of very good homeless organisations in Britain and Ireland. Shelter and Crisis. And they’re now trying to move into prevention to stop people getting into that sort of poverty in the first place.

There is still a job to do in that emergency moment when somebody needs help so they don’t die on the streets — whether it’s through neglect or the cold or whatever. It’s hard to trace one thing, one reason to explain why there’s a greater number of people dying on the streets. It’s complex. John Bird, for example, talks about the boredom of living on the streets. There’s just nothing to do. You’re caught in a cycle. You’re outside and your mental health is going to be shattered by that kind of living. Which is another reason why it’s so important to get people off the streets so that they can immediately start to feel they are interacting in a normal way again.

The Scottish Government is adopting the Finnish model — housing first. So as soon as they get somebody, the immediate thing is to get them housed. But there are issues around that because of the availability of hostels and housing in general. There are a lot of issues to be addressed.

Q. So, do you think we can ever reach a stage where there will no homeless people on the streets?

A. I think there will always be people who will slip through the net,  unquestionably, because of how people are. There are people who may just want to disappear or they may not want help. I think that if there’s a real attempt to deal with the mental health problems that drive a lot of people on to the streets, as much as around the actual building of houses, perhaps the rough sleeping numbers will drop.

But then there’s hidden homelessness. Families who are living in one bedroom B&Bs or people who are right on the margins. If they lose one wage cheque their whole life could be thrown into chaos. Or kids who just can’t afford to make that leap, they’re sofa-surfing and they’ve no kind of permanence.

I think that element of hidden homelessness will become something that we’ll need to deal with in the next year to 24 months — especially with the uncertainty around Brexit and the uncertainty around Universal Credit.

Q. You’re currently working to help more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds get into the media. What’s behind that?

A. This is a particular bugbear of mine. I work with an organisation called the PPA — the Professional Publishers Association. They’re an umbrella group for mostly magazines but also digital publications. I’m the chair of the PPA in Scotland and my aim is to set up a scheme that allows people from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly those who may not even have thought that there is a future for them in journalism, to get in. It was tricky to set up. I’ve got a number of big publishers who’ve agreed to take part.

I think it’s an important thing to do because otherwise the media will just close into a very small circle and there won’t be different perspectives. I know online there is a huge platform for people to say and do things and to be heard. But I also think there is still a desire to make sure people get properly paid and there is some form of career path. And that’s what I want to help provide. Certainly in The Big Issue one of the things that I’ve been absolutely banging on to the editorial team to do is to find these voices and to allow them through.

Q. Your Big Issue office is in Glasgow. It’s a bit unusual, isn’t it, for a national magazine not to be based in London?

A. It is. And I love that it’s based here.

It means you can show you don’t have to be in central London to produce a national title and it means you can bring the best of talent out of London because there might be a better standard of living in what is still a decent-sized city.

I love Glasgow. Within a couple of years time I’ll have lived here longer than anywhere else. Longer than in Ballymena. Longer than in England.

I love this city. I feel almost Glaswegian now.

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