boycott Big Issue street newspaper, says Street Spirit editor FWD

Tom Boland (
Thu, 12 Feb 1998 01:39:01 -0800 (PST)

FWD via Robert Norse at "Bathrobespierre" <>  10 Feb 1998

The following editorial was published in the February issue of Street
Spirit.  Editor Terry Messman is now suggesting a boycott of The Big Issue
and/or The Body Shop (its financial backer) TBI violates its own charter
and moves into Los Angeles/Santa Monica in a move that some predict will
destroy the local homeless newspaper Making Change.  Both NASNA and the
National Coalition for the Homeless have both publicly opposed The Big
Issue's move into L.A. and supported Making Change.  Neither have taken
any position on the proposed boycott, nor do the opinions in the
following editorial represent their position.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 10 Feb 98 12:10:13 -0800

Editorial by Terry Messman

At the Seattle founding convention of the North America Street Newspaper
Association (NASNA) last September, Big Issue representative Ruth Turner
told the assembled street paper editors the Big Secret of Big Business.
"There is so much money, money, money available from advertising," Turner
said with great relish. "It's money for nothing."
It was a revealing self-portrait of an acquisitive corporation ruled by
the profit motives of Big Business. For although the Big Issue is sold by
homeless people, in truth it is a multinational corporation that
cultivates advertising more than it fosters activism. As we are seeing in
Los Angeles, it is more likely to emulate the hostile take-over strategy
of big corporations than to demonstrate the kind of mutual support and
solidarity that must be the hallmarks of the homeless movement.
Founded and funded by the Body Shop corporation, the Big Issue has
launched a major bid to take over the large "market" for street
newspapers it perceives in Los Angeles, arrogantly shouldering aside a
pre-existing street paper, Making Change, produced by Jennafer Waggoner,
a homeless woman and dedicated nonviolent activist. The Big Issue is
charged by Waggoner with violating the Charter of the International
Network of Street Papers (INSP), which prohibits members from staging
hostile or competitive infringements on another street paper's territory.
Waggoner recently wrote to Big Issue Editor/Publisher John Bird: "Does
not your INSP Charter state a member will not invade the established
selling area of an existing charter member? My paper is a member of
NASNA. NASNA is a member of the INSP. This means Making Change is an INSP
member whose territory you are violating. How can we not see your moves
and your motives as hostile?"
By ignoring its own INSP Charter, the Big Issue has triggered deep
resentment in some homeless advocacy circles. NASNA's Executive Committee
met on January 8 and agreed that it was "unanimously opposed to the Big
Issue setting up in Los Angeles." The NASNA body discussed ways of
"turning up the heat on the Big Issue," including "mobilizing allies in
the global streetpaper movement to register protest, arranging a picket
of their London headquarters, and registering complaints with their major
funders." The Executive Board of the National Coalition for the Homeless
also approved a resolution opposing the Big Issue's actions.
Big Issue Editor Bird wrote to NASNA that he was "very disturbed" by its
opposition to his Los Angeles venture, and quickly reached for legal
muscle to protect his business interests. Bird wrote: "It would seem that
we have so outraged NASNA that we are now threatened by you. I am not
sure of the legality - or otherwise - of your threats (to protest the Big
Issue), but I shall certainly be taking legal advice as to whether you
are within the law to make such threats."
Uh oh! Big Lawyers! Big Trouble! Big Legal Bills! Big Business As Usual!
The fight between the Big Issue and its small opponent is hardly a fair
one. It is an unseemly spectacle to have such a large, well-funded
company running roughshod over a homeless woman who puts out a
grass-roots newspaper with next to no funding, no advertising, and no
corporate deep pockets to draw on. The Big Issue, on the other hand, is a
multi-million-dollar corporation founded and funded by the Body Shop in
London in 1991.
This is not the first time the Big Issue has tried to seize the market in
a U.S. city. It made similar unsettling moves in San Francisco in 1994
and New York in 1997. Paul Boden, director of the S.F. Coalition on
Homelessness, told the London paper in no uncertain terms that he would
consider any attempt to set up a Big Issue clone in the Bay Area an
unacceptable attack on the Coalition's Street Sheet.
In New York, the Big Issue was planning on driving the Street News out of
business, an especially cold-blooded proposition considering that Bird
acknowledges getting the idea for his paper from the New York street
NASNA Chair Tim Harris attended the General Assembly of the International
Network of Street Papers in London in 1996. In an article about the
conference, Harris reported the thinking behind the Big Issue's craving
to grab the Big Apple.
"Bird claimed that New York's Street News, which has inspired the Big
Issue and numerous other papers since it began in 1989, is on the verge
of complete failure because the paper is 'unreadable.' The New York paper
has, in recent years, focused editorially on poverty issues, but has been
racked by internal difficulties. While no formal announcement was made,
several lower-level Big Issue staff confirmed rumors that The Big Issue
plans to begin a competing paper in New York, probably before the summer
of 1997."
To my ears, this strategy sounds similar to a vulture carefully keeping a
death watch on the weakest animal in the herd, but in the world of
venture capitalism such behavior is all too often the norm.
Gordon Roddick, chairman of the Body Shop and co-founder of the Big
Issue, reportedly held talks with Bird about funding a competing paper in
New York in October, 1997, with moves into Los Angeles and San Francisco
to follow. The New York attempt was thwarted, but the move into Los
Angeles, alas, proceeded.
Because of these repellent machinations, I personally will never again
buy anything from the Body Shop. I join Street Sheet Editor Paul Boden's
call for people to refuse on principle to purchase the Big Issue. The
paper and its corporate backer must be held accountable for this
Machiavellian marketing strategy.
The Big Issue identified the largest market where they perceived some
weakness in an existing street paper, and went after it in an
ill-disguised takeover bid. New York City was the largest market with a
seemingly weak paper. But the prediction of the impending demise of the
New York Street News was premature. The Big Issue ran headlong into the
steadfast fighting spirit of Street News Editor Indio Washington.
The result? Street News is still going strong, so Bird took the
traveling, colonizing roadshow to the West Coast, where Los Angeles
beckoned with the second largest media market in the country, and only a
tiny street paper edited by Jennafer Waggoner in the way. A push-over.
But Waggoner is a dedicated activist who stands up for the human rights
of homeless people, and has been arrested for her principled acts of
civil disobedience, most recently for occupying the vacant Flamingo
Motel. Her paper, Making Change, is born out of the struggles of homeless
people in Santa Monica and Los Angeles. The Big Issue is born out of a
London-based corporation's grandiose ambitions to colonize ever-new
territories to further the expansionist drive of a paper "empire."
Waggoner's paper, and her entire activist life, is based on advancing the
human rights of homeless people and conducting the kind of hard-hitting
reporting on justice issues practiced by most North American homeless
advocacy papers.
The Big Issue, on the other hand, is a paper that, as Bird himself wrote
in a letter to NASNA on January 9, has "an editorial balance of 20%
social matters and 80% general interest." This means that by his own
estimate, the Big Issue consists disproportionately of entertainment
fluff, rock star bios and celebrity coverage. Add in all the column
inches devoted to advertising, and a true picture emerges of where the
Big Issue's heart is - and isn't.
They concocted their "editorial balance" as shrewdly as they crafted
their move into Los Angeles. Infotainment sells, and bland editorial
content doesn't offend advertisers or challenge the public with too much
hard-hitting reporting about "difficult" subjects.
USA Today and People Magazine also feature entertainment journalism and
eschew outspoken political advocacy, but they do not promote themselves
as a street newspaper, nor do they compete with grass-roots homeless
papers, nor try to knock them out of business.
In his article about the INSP conference, Harris reported that Bird said
he was committed to spreading his paper's model of "general interest
entertainment journalism and corporate support," and that the major
function of street newspapers is to be a "business."
"The Big Issue is not a homeless paper," Bird said. "It never has and
never will be. It is a paper sold by homeless people. While we have a
ghetto in the paper for the homeless called Streetlights, we want to
break people out of that."
It is insufferably demeaning for Bird to dismiss the one part of his
paper where homeless people express themselves as a "ghetto" that they
must break out of - presumably so they can write about more commercial
subjects such as Madonna, Oasis, or people addicted to playing the
There is an urgent need for the kind of passionate, politically committed
journalism practiced by Making Change and many North American street
papers. The real threat posed by the Big Issue is that with its big
budget and big corporate backing, it will engulf and devour smaller
papers and replace their crusading reporting with its dumbed-down
entertainment journalism (and its 20% reporting on what Bird blandly
calls "social matters").
The most important goal of homeless newspapers is not to attract
advertising revenue but to fearlessly tell the truth about the injustices
suffered by poor people and to build a movement to safeguard basic human
rights. A street paper with a conscience must join in solidarity
struggles with the homeless community and promote activist campaigns to
win decent housing, jobs, welfare entitlements, health care and
disability rights.
In his letter to NASNA on January 9, Bird wrote: "Many of your members
will no doubt see The Big Issue as a piece of fluff, too slick by half. I
would be very surprised if it were different. Their vision of a street
paper is totally opposite to that of The Big Issue as it is represented
in its UK incarnation."
"A piece of fluff, too slick by half." Finally we can agree on something.

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