Industry Voices

Laura Kelly | Digital Producer | The Big Issue

By Jess Browne-Swinburne

10 Mar 2021

Former PPA Scotland Director and current Digital Producer at The Big Issue, Laura Kelly has always been enraptured by magazines and the power they have in building communities. This is exactly what The Big Issue are achieving with their recent LinkedIn partnership, which Laura explains more about while also highlighting how important magazine's have been at a time when we are all craving connection.

What made you want to work in publishing?

Since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted to be a journalist. My first inspiration was my grandmother, Kay Kennedy, who was one of the first female newspaper editors in Ireland. She took great risks in covering the Troubles, knew Johnny Cash and interviewed The Beatles.

My love for magazines started with my first subscription to Smash Hits. Its irreverence and humour profoundly shaped what I think a magazine should be to this day. Growing up in Belfast in the 90s – a place still under the shadow of sectarian violence – music magazines were a window into another world. I longed to be part of the world of Melody Maker, NME, Select, Kerrang.

Chart your career from the start to where you are now.

My career started in the basement offices of Edinburgh University’s Student newspaper. From there I went on to be the music editor in the launch year of Fest, the Edinburgh Festivals magazine. It involved a huge number of gigs and 4am page-layouts.

In 2005, I joined The Big Issue as a subeditor for the Scottish edition. When I left in 2013, I was the Arts and Features Editor. I had a ball. I got to interview everyone from Tim Burton and Courtney Love to William Shatner, and once explained the Higgs Boson to David Attenborough.

I followed on with a couple of arts marketing roles – including for Glasgow music festival Celtic Connections and for the Commonwealth Games. I also spent some time as the editor of a global news service for street papers, at the International Network of Street Papers.

Leading the PPA in Scotland, I ran Magfest – the country’s biggest and best magazine event – and the PPA Scottish Magazine Awards. I also started the world’s first week-long festival of magazines – the Edinburgh International Magazine Festival.

For the last couple of years, I was a columnist at Holyrood magazine. In September last year, I returned to The Big Issue as part of a brand-new digital team to expand the organisation’s ambitious evolution, which began during the enormous challenges of the pandemic. It’s been really exciting seeing the growth of bigissue.com in the last few months.

The Big Issue recently partnered with LinkedIn for the ‘Raising Profiles’ campaign – can you explain how this came to fruition and the concept behind it?

Covid has turned our society upside down and its impact on The Big Issue was huge. March 2020’s lockdown saw The Big Issue face the biggest crisis of its 29 years. All 1,700 vendors had to stop selling the magazine, taking away their ability to make a living.

The Big Issue worked quickly to give vendors the skills to sell subscriptions online and supported them to accept cashless payments. This means that their customers will be able to buy the magazine on the high street and still maintain a degree of social distancing, when this stage of lockdown ends.

The partnership with LinkedIn gives vendors yet another way to connect with their customers, which will not only help their sales but ease the feeling of social isolation experienced over the past year, allowing vendors to reconnect with their customers and community.

Big Issue vendors run their own micro-businesses buying copies of the magazine for £1.50 and selling to the public for £3, keeping the difference. In this way the magazine provides them with the means to earn a legitimate income. The partnership with LinkedIn aims to take the vendors into a professional space, giving them access to a professional platform which reinforces that they are working for living and allows them to increase their sales in the face of ongoing challenges thrown up by the Covid pandemic.

What engagement have you seen with the campaign both with your vendors and their customers?

There are nine Big Issue vendors from across the UK taking part in the pilot scheme. They have received training from LinkedIn, allowing them to grow their understanding of the platform and how they can use it to progress their careers. Currently the Big Issue team is checking in on a weekly basis with the vendors to share the messages they have received and aid them with responses.

There has been a hugely warm and welcoming response from the LinkedIn community with people posting comments offering support and taking out subscriptions. We have also seen heart-warming peer support with vendors reaching out to other vendors from different parts of the country to share their difficulties and offer support and connection.

We have seen more vendors keen to get involved and are currently working on a phase two plan. The eventual goal would be to hopefully help as many vendors as possible utilise LinkedIn to find gainful employment and continue to open up opportunities.

You have a wide-ranging knowledge of the magazine industry – what are some of the standout innovations you have seen over the past year from magazines across the UK?

Since the bulk of it happened before I worked here, I don’t feel too bad pointing to The Big Issue’s response to the coronavirus crisis as the most inspiring thing I’ve seen in the last year. Their main distribution method – as well as the way they deliver their social purpose – was torpedoed overnight with lockdown. But they went headlong into a huge subscriptions campaign, launched their first app, and – most importantly – instituted a huge programme of support for their vendors. So far they have given out more than £1million in support to some of the UK’s most vulnerable people.

I’ve also loved watching the incredible growth of DC Thomson’s podcasting division, led by the extremely dynamic Christopher Phin. The company is truly capitalising on the intense personal relationships that audio can bring with their audiences.

What’s on your radar?

In the last year, I think we’ve all been craving connection. So I’m watching with great interest the ways in which magazines are cultivating deeper relationships with their readers. That can be through podcasts, memberships, social media, (for now, online) events, or multiple other means. I’ve loved voting in the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards and am eyeing up the Empire VIP club.

It all goes back to what intoxicated me about magazines way back in the early 90s – their first, best role is to build community.

As an aside, one good thing about events having been digital in the last year is that they’ve been accessible to those – like me – who do not live in London. Please keep it going, publishers!

What magazine would you stockpile?

I have a terrible habit of buying and keeping them all. Honestly, I’m still a bit upset at my younger self for cutting up all my copies of Smash Hits, Melody Maker and NME to put them on my walls. All those Manics interviews torn up!

Still, mine is a house full of magazines. Aside from my hoard of 15 years of Big Issues, my stash currently features Fangoria, Empire, Gold Flake Paint and Holyrood. My favourite magazine I’ve bought recently was the edition of Metal Hammer with Twin Temple on the cover. That one will be kept pristine.

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