What do street paper readers want? #INSP2016 answers

If street papers want to help their vendors, they need to shift as many papers as possible.

To do this, editors must know what their readers want, and find the balance of popular content with articles that also reflect their magazine’s core identity.

This week at the INSP summit in Athens, street paper leaders from the UK, Denmark and Greece discussed their different techniques for building readership and engaging new audiences. Listening to both readers and vendors plays a key part, as well as focusing on building a strong brand identity.

Poul Struve Nielson (Hus Forbi), Russell Blackman (The Big Issue) and Christos Alefantis (Shedia)

Russell Blackman, Director of Publishing for The Big Issue UK, gave an overview of The Big Issue Group, which he said has “changed the publishing landscape in UK over the past 25 years and given a hand up to thousands of vendors.”

“The Big Issue is still seen as an outsider magazine in the UK, but it’s still widely respected,” said Russell, pointing to the fact that the magazine has 22 industry awards under its belt.

The Big Issue’s current circulation stands at 78,000 copies per week or four million a year.

Russell puts the magazine’s success down to its strong brand identity. “We have a duty to our vendors to get it right,” he said.

“The magazine has to stand on its own so it’s easy for the vendors to sell and is an enriching experience for readers. The key thing is building brand identity.”

He added that The Big Issue has “a commercial mindset when it comes to covers” and, given the recent rise in free magazines being handed out on the streets of the UK, it always asks if the cover is good enough to compete on a newsstand.

“We know covers can have a huge impact on vendors’ sales so it has to stand out and say something; be beyond its cover star. It has to reflect our core identity. We also need to make it is different every issue.”

He also pointed out that the magazine’s unparalleled access to big names is useful to engage new readers. He mentioned a recent Mark Hamill guest edit as an example, in which the Star Wars star interviewed his heroes – The Kinks. (The interviews were also shared with street papers on the INSP News Service).

“It allows us to spread our philosophy and tap into a wider audience so we’re always looking to have guest editors and high profile supporters to promote the magazine.”

But the key is finding the balance between entertaining and informing. The Big Issue may interview celebrities and invite high profile journalists to contribute, but always does so in an alternative, independent voice. Featuring vendor stories in the magazine is also important.

“It’s a case of getting the balance right,” he added. “Helping the vendor is often a key motivator for purchasing but readers also want a magazine that they will be entertained by. We really work on that balance.”

Russell also raised the vital importance of using social media to reach out to younger readers, as the average age of readers is 46.

Hus Forbi takes a different approach to content, and its cover stars. Last year the Danish street paper was the most read, paid-for monthly publication in the whole of Denmark. It is also one of the few INSP street papers that always puts its vendors on the cover, without fail.

Editor in chief Poul Struve Nielsen said seeking advice from vendors is paramount to the paper’s success.

“We have 800 informers on the streets who talk to readers everyday and report back to us with their feedback about what the readers like,” he said.

To that end, Poul regularly consults vendors about the editorial content they want to see in the magazine, gets their advice about covers and even invites them to interview high profile politicians.

“If vendors have a product they are proud of and understand it then it will be easier for them to sell.

“I get a lot of information from sitting down and taking to vendors about what they think will sell and what they think the readers want.”

He echoed Russell’s point that building up the paper’s reputation as a brand that can be trusted and credible is also vital.

Hus Forbi has a strong presence on Facebook – 70,000 followers. Seeing the posts that are most engaging and reading comments is a strong indicator to the type of content people want to read, said Poul. It also gives them an idea of who their readers are.

“Our readers are mostly women [70%], many over 35, who care about others and believe in solidarity. The feedback we get is that most enjoy reading articles about homelessness, especially stories about people who have experienced homelessness or addiction, and have turned their lives around… it’s hard to find these stories but we do try.”

To target a younger audience, Poul has started working with a young, leftist radical cartoonist to create special covers (including its special 20th anniversary edition earlier this year) and content that can attract younger readers.

Shedia editor in chief Christos Alefantis agreed that vendors have to be proud of the product they are selling. The street paper started publishing in February 2013. Christos said a challenge was to engage Shedia’s wide readership, which spans from high school students to people in their nineties.

INSP's Maree and Zoe are happy Shedia readers

Covering important topics in an engaging, positive and often fun way is a solution that has been working for Shedia.

“This is what we’ve been trying to tell people – Shedia is sold by homeless people but is not solely about homelessness. It is about being positive. We try through our work to be positive in a country deep in gloom.”

To do this, Shedia focuses of solutions journalism through articles that don’t just highlight the problems of poverty, homelessness and unemployment in Greece but give examples of projects and people that are making a difference.

“We don’t want to depress people, we want to be part of the solution. When we raise social issues we try to show solutions, whether it is at home or abroad,” he said.

“We try to be funny and promote the idea that solidarity and love can be fun. We have some of best cartoonists in world work for us. We don’t have interviews with politicians. I find it interesting that people say they like Shedia because it isn’t a political magazine yet it feels political.”

A general consensus of the panel and audience members was that readers can sometimes feel guilty or depressed when reading content about homelessness and poverty. It can sometimes be a contributing factor to why readers will sometimes give vendors money but not take the paper.

Branding can be a factor – hitting home to readers the idea that street papers aren’t charities but social businesses. Christos explained that Shedia vendors always give customers receipts and are encouraged to refuse tips to reinforce the idea of a sales transaction.

Christos Alefantis at the INSP Awards Photo: Panos Zoulakis /

The key points to attracting readers and keeping them coming back were summed up by Russell.

“We all have very different products and different priorities but for us key items are to ensure we can sustain the active involvement of readers and we do this through engaging on multiple platforms on a regular basis,” he said.

“We have a duty to our vendors to create commercially successful magazines and paramount importance is to listen to your readers, listen to your vendors… in that way you’re more likely to build a brand that readers want to buy and can also give vendors the hand up they very much need.”