The Big Issue magazine goes digital

Digital Big Issue takes magazine beyond the mountain
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
29 January 2013

Digital innovation has enabled The Big Issue (TBI) magazine to reach readers beyond Cape Town’s traffic lights where unemployed adult vendors are spotted selling the publication at the end of each month.

The latest edition of the magazine hit streets on 25 January and is available from vendors who are “unemployed, marginalised or socially excluded adults”.

A digital version will go on sale three weeks later via an application compatible with iPad, iPhone and Android devices. This application is available from iTunes and Google-Play.

The first digital copy already launched is the magazine’s bumper 2012/2013 Collector’s Edition which “features 60 of South Africa’s best writers, thought leaders, photographers, cartoonists, poets and illustrators”.

TBI says in a statement that this edition is “enhanced with multi-media content, offering digital buyers a whack of additional content and features.”

“This includes a song off cover star Hugh Masekela’s newly-released album ‘Playing at Work’; additional photo slideshows complementing photography in the magazine; video interviews and audio clips related to content and related live links.”

Two previous year’s collector editions are also available for free if one purchases the Masekela edition for R35.

Trudy Vlok, the international magazine’s South African managing director, says the decision to go digital was to grow readership figures. The intention was also to “keep up with the latest digital trends and to build up another source of income for our job creation and training programmes”.

Vlok says about 300 vendors sell up to 14 000 copies of the magazine each month.

“Our vendors primarily sell in the Cape Town CBD and greater Cape Town area, while only a handful of vendors are active in Johannesburg… We get lots of requests for the magazine from people outside our current vendor distribution area,” says Vlok.

“We are marketing the digital app to other areas in South Africa and abroad, especially expat markets, and offering readers there an opportunity to experience the magazine and support us.”

TBI’s business model though is about securing an income for its vendors who generally have no other employment. Its premise is that the “change is in your pocket” as by buying the magazine one contributes to a developmental employment programme. Vendors make a living by earning 50% of the cover price.

Vlok confirms that cutting out the vendor would not curtail their profits as the digital version was directed towards “markets outside vendor’s selling areas”.

Profits off digital sales would still be channelled into TBI’s social development and job creation programmes, says Vlok.

Melany Bendix, the magazine’s Cape Town-based editor, says their marketing plan would target “readership primarily in major city centres in South Africa (except Cape Town), as well as key expat markets such as the United Kingdom and Australia”.

“We realise we have a lot of work to do to raise awareness of The Big Issue’s unique content offering in markets beyond Cape Town. It will, no doubt, be a slow-build, but we’re confident new readers will gravitate towards the product,” she adds.

Bendix also believes that “vendors who have long-standing relationships with their customers” will not be out of pocket.

“We are confident that regular buyers will continue to purchase print magazines from their vendor. Our market research shows that the ‘feel good’ factor of direct vendor purchases is a major contributor to sales,” says Bendix.

“We don’t believe the digital app will change this. If anything, we believe regular Cape Town readers are likely to double-buy, if they would like the convenience of a digital magazine and buy a hard copy from a vendor, which they will most likely leave in their car to show they have a copy.”

Bendix add, “Our aim is to grow readership beyond our traditional Cape Town vendor selling area, and to attract an entirely new class of readership who prefer a digital option as opposed to print. This is in line with our overall goal of increasing magazine sales.”

Vlok says vendors were consulted regarding the digital edition and they know it “will only go on-sale once the hard copy has already been on sale for three weeks, so as not to impact their sales in any way”.

Vlok says The Big Issue UK and The Big Issue in the North are two other street papers that already have digital editions.

“The Big Issue UK is selling a downloadable version online. The Big Issue in the North has provided their vendors with cards containing QR codes to unlock a download, which they sell along with the hard copy magazine,” she says.

“To my knowledge, neither of these two provides a digitally enhanced product like we are… We are hoping to grow regular sales and a loyal online reader community. Actual (readership growth) numbers remain to be seen.”

The monthly digital magazine will cost R25. More information can be found at

This article was originally published on the following website:



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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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