Our fifth panel of the conference day one centred on magazines. Nikki Simpson, from the International Magazine Centre, chaired; with Alexandria Turner from DC Thomson; Arusa Qureshi, freelancer; Hannah Taylor from The Delicate Rébellion; and Paul McNamee from The Big Issue speaking.
To start, the panellists described how the pandemic affected each of them in the last year. Arusa kicked things off by speaking about her work with The List, where she was sadly made redundant from and thus eventually became a full-time freelancer. The experience 'forced [her] to be more proactive but was liberating.'
Alexandria said that DC Thomson’s first priority was to make sure that everything went to print on time, but the next step was to look at diversifying their products and changing things up. They had to consider the changing consumer shopping habits to online, and the sudden shift in a parent’s role to being a home-schooler. A digital strategy was key to reaching their readers and finding out how best to meet their needs in this constantly changing time.
Hannah spoke about being an indie publication; The Delicate Rébellion flies by the seat of their pants and face curveballs every day, and this year was just a bigger curveball than most. However, pre-orders of the magazine becoming their sole funding mechanism due to the cancellation of events and the loss of Hannah’s financial backers for the year was a blow to her confidence. Nevertheless, she continued with the rebranding and got more pre-orders for the magazine than ever before. She attests this to people wanting to live lockdown ‘beyond a screen’ and being keen to support indie publishers throughout this tough period.
The Big Issue is arguably one the of the most changed publications after the pandemic, as their entire business model disappeared in a day. It was a socially motivated business model, where the vendors (most of whom are homeless, or on the outskirts of society) buy the magazines for half the cover price and then sell the magazine on the street. With the ‘Stay at Home’ order out, no one was on the streets, and 13,000–15,000 vendors lost their living. The company had no money to continue making issues for them to see. So, in about 3 months, The Big Issue saw themselves making 5 years of innovation to get the issue out there. You can now subscribe to The Big Issue, listen to their podcast, and they’re available in the shops when they’re open.
Nikki asked all the panellists about what they’re working on now. Arusa spoke about her current projects, as she described how excited she was about the future. She’s been able to write for lots of different titles that she wasn’t able to while at her previous role, and she’s been involved in many different types of projects, including a research on a BBC Sounds podcast called Word Up about people of colour in Scotland. She’s still involved in magazine publishing, but in a different way. She offers advice to freelancers out there saying it’s not all doom and gloom – there are so many routes you can take once you figure out and realise your skills.
Alexandria spoke about Animal Planet, DC Thomson’s latest launch in the children’s market. It is a licensed and subscription-based children’s magazine inspired by the Discovery Channel show. It was meant to be launched in July 2020, but ended up being pushed to February 2021, and has been DC Thomson’s biggest children’s magazine launch in a while. They’ve developed a website and social media strategy and have worked with Aceville to complement home-schooling with their content.
Hannah has used the pandemic to build her brand extensions. Through The Collective, her paid-for community for creatives, she was able to sell some of her community’s wares in The Delicate Rébellion’s online store. Despite being pushed back, the store launched in February. Her biggest challenge was that she wanted to run it properly and pay for stock upfront through paying wholesale prices, but she didn’t know what quantities to buy of each item – and ended up selling out of almost everything!
Paul spoke about The Big Issue and the place in the public’s heart that it holds. People view The Big Issue and its mission with great positivity, and he was grateful in how much they supported it. So, the digital expansion was about how best to serve the readers and creating great clarity of content, which is what keeps readers coming back to the magazine. As well as expanding into a TV channel, they were trying to create jobs to help ensure that people on the fringes of society don’t become homeless. The Big Issue is a driver for positive social change, and people want to get on board with that. They also created The Big Issue Ambassadors, where well-known celebrities lend their voice and support of The Big Issue, including Christopher Eccleston and George Clark.
Moving onto audience questions, Arusa spoke about the difference between freelancing and working in-house and how risky each were, as well as considering that remote working has opened up more opportunities to freelancers than ever before. Hannah’s positive to come from lockdown is that The Delicate Rébellion is still here, which proves there is a need for her magazine. She had an ‘out’ at the beginning of lockdown to back away and ‘save face’, but she didn’t and this year The Collective has doubled in size. The readers and creators in the magazine have become more of an ecosystem and the community around the mag are very protective, and Hannah feels very supported by them. Paul spoke about the balance between digital presence and print publications, which has shifted for The Big Issue. Digital and print are now regarded as equal, and they’re building their editorial pillars around this change in balance.
Further in the questions, Alexandria was very passionate about the disparity in children’s learning, which has been exacerbated in lockdown, and the place magazines have in mitigating this access gap and fostering a love of reading. Arusa spoke about the conversations she’s been having about diversity and inclusion within the industry, and worries that after all this is over, people will just step back from the issue. But she is happy to see the pledges and statements that companies are making about it. Hannah is also worried about her stockists and retailers who have helped her get to print by ordering pre-orders – some are struggling because they’re not set up for online and rely on passing physical trade to get by. These kinds of magazine stockists are only as good as the publications on their shelves, and they need help and support. Paul rounded off the panel by saying that Covid was the worst thing that could have happened; if you can cope with that and survive, then you’ll manage anything else that comes your way. Despite his anxieties about his vendors going back and whether or not they can continue to produce a quality magazine – he reminds us all that we should always be looking forward and that’s how we’ll get through it.