Under the Radar with Paul McNamee

Laura Rutkowski

The Big Issue's Editor is from Ballymena, Northern Ireland, but is now based in Glasgow for work. He shares a love of church architecture with the magazine's founder John Bird and Mark Hamill has asked him for advice...it's all part of the job!

Paul McNamee 

What made you want to work in the magazine industry?

Well, I didn't want to work in magazines first of all. I wanted to be a news reporter on a newspaper and that's really where my interest in journalism started. Then, in my early to mid-teens, I discovered the NME. I discovered ads for gigs in places that sounded terribly exotic – in London and Northampton. I started to fall in love with music.

Can you chart your journey from when you started out to your current position?

I started in a very small way at a free sheet in north Belfast called The Link. I realised I needed to get some proper qualifications, so I did a post-grad in journalism. I managed to convince the people at The Link to pay for that for me – as long as I kept on doing some work for them.

Then I went to The Fermanagh Herald. I did my training there and I became friends with a guy called Colin Murray, who is now a very successful tv and radio host, in Belfast. We set up a magazine called Blank not really knowing what we were doing, but it was great fun – we learned a lot and made a lot of mistakes.

After that, I went to the NME and did four years there. I went freelance for a while. The Big Issue was changing things around in Scotland, so I went over to Glasgow. I started out as Deputy Editor of the Scottish edition, then became Editor of the Scottish edition, then things changed around and I became Editor of the British edition. 

Do you have a go-to work outfit?

I'm quite simple, old-fashioned. I like to wear a well-cut shirt, trousers and a good jacket – that's about it. 

What do you turn to when you’re on deadline – tea/coffee/snacks?

Coffee. It's always very strong, black coffee – and as much of it as I can find.

What’s the most unusual situation you’ve found yourself in because of your job?

When we were working on a special edition of The Big Issue, Mark Millar, the comic book creator, was guest editing the magazine. It was on the theme of heroes and he got different people he knew or that he was associated with to interview their heroes. We had Mark Hamill, who is Luke Skywalker, interviewing Ray Davies from The Kinks. I was in a very strange position where Luke Skywalker was asking me for pointers and I was helping him construct questions that he was going to ask Ray Davies. That was pretty weird. 

What would people be surprised to know about your job?

With any Editor, people are always asking, “What is it you actually do?” If they were to find out what Editors do, that might be a surprise for them. I don't know how much I can reveal, or what I'd want to reveal. I can't spoil the magic. 

Walk me through your typical day.

We tend to start with a conference. It's a catch-up with editorial and production, reviewing where we are, where things are digitally, making sure everyone's clear on what they're doing and that we're getting the best out of the pages. It’s quite a brief thing – 15 minutes. We've got people in our office in London and people in our office in Glasgow, so it's just so that everybody is happy.

After that, I might have a couple of other meetings or phone conferences. I start to check pages, I'll start to answer correspondence. I will then think about content that we're missing, content that I'd like to see in, correcting some things. There's quite a lot of discussion with commercial teams and with advertising. There's invariably some new talent who will get in touch with different ideas, so we'll take a look at that.

How has being a member of the PPA helped you/added value to your brand?

You meet a lot of people that perhaps you wouldn't otherwise and you learn things from them, like how to make your magazine better. You share ideas and content thoughts and you look to raise your own standard. It's about introductions, opening doors and possibilities. 

If you didn’t have to sleep, how would you use the remaining hours in the day? 

I'd eat everything. I'd like to develop some elements of the magazine, work out how I get more pages in and get better pages in. I'd read a lot more and I'd probably visit a lot more churches. I love church architecture and I don't have half enough time to go and visit churches and cathedrals.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

I don't feel guilty about any of the things I like. I like 15th/16th century choral music, so every now and again when I want a particular atmosphere in the office, I'll put on some choral music, which I know might annoy people.

Whose phone number do you wish you had?

Eric Cantona. We would chat about everything – football, Manchester United, nothing too heavy – going out for a pint just to chew the fat.

What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

“Stay working with me, because although the money isn't very good, you'll learn an awful lot.” The guy who gave me that advice, a few weeks later, the company went bust. 

What/where is your happy place?

I like being out somewhere barren, remote, on the top of a hill. The landscape looks quite bleak – it's hard to see through a misty rain. There are no people around. There’s no phone signal. I’m just wandering about there, the dog running in and out of heather. 

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I really like church architecture. I have a favourite cathedrals list for cathedrals in mainland Europe and also for churches, depending on the period of church. My favourite religious building is Durham Cathedral. It is the most incredible piece of architecture with that late Norman look to it, vast incredible ceilings, great architecture and beautiful rose windows. There are also some very small churches in Brittany that I really like – weird churches with only windows on one side and a single door. I can usually find something in most that I like.

There's a few cathedrals in mainland France and Germany that I want to see and there's one in Finland that's got particularly curious architecture. I take a lot of photos – I'll take photos of the door and of arches and of windows. I am a terrible bore.

John Bird, who's the founder of The Big Issue, shares my enthusiasm for church architecture. We used to arrange to have meetings once or twice a year to review where the magazine is and where it's going, but we'd have it in cathedral cities. We'd each go and take in a cathedral, we'd have the meeting and then we'd go our separate ways. We went through different cathedrals across Britain in that way. 

If The Big Issue was solely my interests, it'd be churches, cathedrals, Manchester United, red wine and music. It'd be very niche and I'm not sure it would sell an awful lot, so I tend not to put that in too much. 

What would be in your Room 101?

Missing a deadline – that we wouldn't get into print or making a terrible mistake. I worry all week that something bad has happened to the magazine. That is a constant low-grade, gnawing fear.

Introvert or extrovert?

Probably more extroverted than introverted. 

Optimist or pessimist?

Optimist.

Film or television? What are you binge-watching at the moment?

Television. I keep going back to old comedies. I started watching The Office again, I love Father Ted. There's a show called Death in Paradise set in the Caribbean and there's always a murder. It's absolute garbage, but I do find myself enjoying that. As much as edifying television, I like bad tv. 

Sweet or savoury?

Savoury.

Morning person or night owl?

Both.

Tea or coffee?

Coffee.

Emojis – cool or cringey? Which emoji do you use the most?

I fucking hate them. I have never sent one in my life – never. I've taken maybe two selfies in my life and one of those was by mistake.

 

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