For a couple of years in the mid-1990s, I worked out of an office overlooking Times Square. Sounds of the midtown-Manhattan traffic, many floors below, were screened out by huge windows, which, when it grew dark, offered spectacular views of the neon advertising signs and the lights of the fast-flowing canyons of traffic.
Now it’s not unusual for my working days to begin with a minute or two spent brushing mouse shit off my desk, though I sometimes have to delay this while I twiddle with the bare light bulb above to get it to stay on. I work in a bluestone building that dates from the mid-19th century: it’s a heritage building and lovely to look at (from outside), but it often seems that much of the building’s wiring and plumbing is only slightly more recent than its foundations. I know all about the plumbing: a toilet, used by many people, is next to my office. The computer I sit at is elderly and regularly shuts down without warning. Oh yes - the building has no air-conditioning, which makes working conditions interesting in the extremes of summer and winter.
Nevertheless, I feel more at home as editor of The Big Issue, the fortnightly magazine sold on streets around Australia by marginalised people, than I did for much of my time working in the mainstream media.
At The Big Issue, I mix daily with the people who sell the magazine: people who are or have been homeless; people battling substance-abuse problems; people with mental illness; people doing it tough for all kinds of reasons, including disability. They are people, across the country, who buy the magazine for $2.50 per copy from our offices or outlets like The Body Shop, then go out to try to sell them for $5.
But the magazine doesn’t just represent money for the vendors. I realised that early in my time as editor, which began in November 2006, when I asked a Melbourne vendor how many magazines he hoped to sell that day. “Eight,” he replied. I quickly did the maths: the cover-price was then $4; eight sales meant a profit of $16, enough for cigarettes and not much more. But those eight magazines gave this bloke a sense of purpose and, importantly, something to do with his time. And it is work. Try it sometime: stand in a public place trying to interest passers-by in something you’re selling - especially when everyone’s feeling squeezed and daily papers are given away for free.
There are all kinds of reasons why people end up selling The Big Issue. It’s often described as the magazine sold by homeless people. That’s simplistic. Only some sleep rough. Most would struggle to hold down a “regular” job, which is why The Big Issue is so important: it offers employment to those who would otherwise be jobless. Some vendors are quite entrepreneurial: they have sales spiels and put on a show for prospective customers. Their income can reflect their salesmanship. Others do little more than stand or sit with the magazine on display. They are the ones I admire the most. And they are used to being ignored.
The biggest frustration, both for vendors and all of us working on the magazine, is that the Australian edition has existed for close to 13 years now and yet too many people still aren’t sure what it is. I hear myself saying all the time: “No, it’s not a greenie magazine.” (Or a leftie magazine. Or a union magazine. Certainly not the Scientologists’ magazine.) It’s simply a lively, general-interest magazine that exists to help those who sell it - a task that’s becoming harder rather than easier.
Late last year, when the words “global financial crisis” crept into common use, someone said to me, “Well, your blokes aren’t going to be affected, are they?” When I asked what he meant, he continued: “Well, the magazine sellers don’t have mortgages; don’t have super funds; don’t have share portfolios going backwards. They’re insulated from all this, aren’t they?” No they’re not. They’ve been hit, like everyone else. Our sales are influenced by everything from bad weather to public-transport problems and holidays, but it seems clear that many people who, 12 months ago, would hand over $5 for a magazine without a second thought are now hanging on to it.
I didn’t become aware of The Big Issue myself until I returned to Australia from New York in September 1998. (The first edition had hit the Melbourne streets two years earlier.) From my first encounter, it struck me as a brilliantly simple and practical idea: a magazine that directly helped those who sold it. I started buying copies whenever I saw a vendor: it was essentially a feel-good purchase, and I might only skim the magazine later. When I did read it, however, I’d often be impressed by the content: this was a magazine with personality and presence.
But it wasn’t until some years later, in 2003, that I actually got involved - after I’d finally left my staff position at The Age. At the time, the most obvious reason for walking away from a secure, well-paid job was a delayed case of foreign correspondent’s syndrome: after being out of the country for several years, reporting on stories like a US presidential campaign, it can be hard to feel engaged by domestic politics and events. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to be a journalist any longer.
There was another factor, too: my second novel had just been published, sparking a (short-lived) burst of interest. I was attending literary festivals not as a reporter but, rather, a guest. I was done with journalism; I was going to be an author. Well, not just an author. I wrote a letter to The Big Issue, saying I’d always admired the publication and its purpose, and could I help? In response, the editor called. She’d be pleased to have me contribute some pieces, she said, but did I appreciate that they paid crap? That was fine; I wasn’t doing it for the money.
Six years on, and now I’m the editor, I sit in a small room next to that toilet, and I regularly tell people that I’d love to have them contribute some pieces, but did they appreciate that we pay crap? Six years ago, I wouldn’t have anticipated this. After all, wasn’t I going to be an author? Yes I was, until I discovered, predictably, that it wasn’t as easy as it looks.