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    A Helping Hand

    Neil Jagger

    Asian Trader talks to Neil Jagger, CEO of the news industry charity NewstrAid, about how help for those who distribute and sell papers is needed more than ever

    Neil Jagger is a news industry stalwart – he worked in Fleet Street and then Canary Wharf, for titles such as The Daily Mail and Evening Standard, and ended as CEO of Reach plc.

    Since the autumn of 2021, though, he has been CEO of a different kind of news operation – the charity NewstrAid, which exists to offer support to those who work in the business of making (as opposed to writing), distributing and selling newsprint and magazines.

    This is a charity with an extremely venerable and proud artisanal history, starting in 1839, at the dawn of the Victorian era, when it was christened the Newsvendors’ Benevolent & Provident Institution – and had the novelist Charles Dickens as president for 17 years from 1853 until he died in 1870. After him, the founder of WH Smith took over – so Neil is standing in some very finely worn shoes.

    He admits that no longer commuting to Canary Wharf from his home in Oxfordshire is a relief. “I used to live in Beckenham and Bromley when I worked at Evening Standard, and it was close to their print site; and then the Daily Mail over in Kensington. I moved here because Oxford to Kensington is not too bad. But almost as soon as we moved, I got a job back at Canary Wharf. Oxford to Canary Wharf is horrible!”

    Now the NewstrAid team meets once or twice a week at its  Bishops Stortford HQ, which is a pleasant cross-country drive, and Neil says that for the rest of the week “it’s rather nice to have a 20-second commute to work from upstairs to downstairs”.

    Desperate need

    I remark that the print industry has been in slow, broad decline for decades. The peak for newspaper sales was the late 1980s, early ’90s, which is well over a generation away now. How has that affected the role of a charity like NewstrAid that looks after the people in the industry?

    “In many respects, it’s accelerated it, particularly with things such as the cost-of-living crisis, fuel going up and people just generally being short of disposable income. Last year was one of our busiest ever years, because of what the charity does. We support about 1000 people each year with financial and emotional support. We give a lot more financial advice and other forms of advice, but the number of people we absolutely support through our portals and our finances is about 1000.”

    So, this is cash money – grants – given out on a needs basis to those such as retailers who are up against the wall?

    “Last year, there was about another 350 people – more than the norm that we supported, mainly with one-off grants, £250 from the cost-of-living crisis fund, just to help them through. We’ve got various funds, and the biggest part of our expenditure is regular beneficiaries,” Neil explains.

    “These are people who we pay three times a year, and they need that ongoing support. They’re on the breadline, I suppose, not to be too dramatic about it. The other 600 or 700 people, depending on the year, are people who need us to help with maybe a new washing machine or a television or some furniture.”

    A Helping Hand

    Its history and interwovenness in the industry have moulded NewstrAid into something like a social service for the sector – supporting not only the breadwinners but their families too, in many ways.

    “We do things like Help for Hobbies,” Neil explains, “so if a child wants to play football, but can’t afford the kit or the subscriptions we will provide a grant for that.”

    It might be cash for an emergency rent payment that could be met by a one-off grant – especially now, when there are many people who just need a little boost to help them out rather than long-term support. Neil says that the act of granting support puts the charity in touch with people they subsequently learn more about, and who may become regular beneficiaries: “They didn’t know about us, we didn’t know about them.” The charity pays out in total about £900,000 per year in financial support, although that’s by no means all NewstrAid does.

    But how does the charity judge, from presumably unlimited need, who to support?

    “When people apply for support they use a portal called Lightning Reach [www.lightningreach.org/], which is an open banking system. There, we can look at their accounts, and if someone’s got £100,000, we’re not going to help them – it is not a trust trading thing. If they’re under certain thresholds, which varies, but if they’re on Universal Credit and have less than £6000 in the bank, we guarantee support. We can sometimes waive that threshold, depending on circumstances, but if they hit that threshold, they’re in.”

    Lightning Reach not only helps NewstrAid validate deserving cases, it also protects the charity against being exploited – and means it can nonetheless help in ways other than sending cash.

    “If we saw spending on gambling in somebody’s bank account, it’s a clearly different issue and it wouldn’t give money. We add rigour to the process,” Neil says. But could the charity instead give emotional and practical support or put them in touch with somebody to help them with their problem?

    “Exactly,” Neil replies, “that’s exactly what we’re doing. And similarly, if you were to see a lot of money being spent on booze, you may do the same with Alcoholics Anonymous or something of that nature. We’re almost like a mini Citizens Advice in certain ways.”

    The charity allots three grants a year to its clients, and also sends out a special “winter comfort” grant to help with fuel bills and so on.

    “The letters we get out in the mail, they make you cry, they’re just beautiful, from people who really, really need our support.”

    Another thing NewstrAid does, which is not common, is to send welfare volunteers to visit its regular beneficiaries.

    “In the old days they used to deliver the cheques personally, but COVID put a stop to that, so it’s paid by BACS. But the almoners – our volunteers – still go and visit our beneficiaries. It’s a lovely service, because a lot of those beneficiaries wouldn’t otherwise see anybody from one day to the next.”

    A broad range

    It is interesting to discover what the composition of the beneficiaries looks like. Is it mainly people in wholesale and distribution or are there more retailers?

    “About 63 per cent of our beneficiaries are retailers, and one of the issues we have is that we don’t know everybody’s background,” Neil explains. “GDPR [internet privacy legislation] has prevented some of it, but before that, as a charity, we weren’t very good at collecting personal data, even though we knew all the financial stuff.”

    Neil says NewstrAid is ultimately uncertain as to the demographics of all the retailers but says he knows they have hundreds of Asian storeowners benefitting from charity’s grants.

    “What we do believe is that there should be more Asian retailers being supported by the charity than is currently the case. And we don’t know if it’s a family thing, because Asian retailers that I’ve met over the years have been very good at bonding together and supporting each other and not looking for outside help in quite the same way.”

    There are also some language barriers, Neil explains, where a number of presumably older retailers have misunderstood the terms of the grants – believing that they are loans to be repaid and therefore being deterred from applying.

    A Helping Hand

    That is a pity, because even today a large majority of c-stores remain Asian-owned – perhaps as high as 90 per cent in London and 70 per cent across the UK. Potentially many South Asians are missing out on help from NewstrAid – even though the younger generations now taking over from parents and grandparents have very few language issues and are more highly educated in financial and technical matters.

    “I also I work with the NFRN – the Fed,” says Neil. “Through working with the Fed, I’ve worked with lots of newsagents, and I must say that in this next generation of retailers there are some absolute entrepreneurs. Some of the stuff that they are doing is amazing. I was seeing a guy in Morley, near Leeds, and he has a cocktail bar in his convenience store!”

    Neil judges that the charity is seeing a greater number of the older generation who didn’t quite “make it work”, are retired or incapacitated.

    “The younger people who are entrepreneurs and ‘making it work’, they don’t need our help – they’re on their way. But there are those older retailers who it just didn’t quite fit, or maybe a Tesco Express set up next door or something bad has happened. They’re the people who we tend to support, that older age demographic, although there are instances where it is younger people.”

    Worth supporting

    Neil says that one thing NewstrAid has to beware of, is falling into the trap of supporting a failing business.

    “Okay,” he concedes, “a failing business has ramifications in other parts of your life. But we don’t support things like business overdrafts, and we don’t pay outstanding suppliers’ bills, because as a charity that’s not in our articles. What we do support is family finances. If you’ve got rent arrears, if you’ve got mental health or wellbeing issues, if you need debt advice, if you have suffered from retail crime, have bereavement costs or disability costs, we’ll help with those. If your child needs some equipment for school and you can’t afford it, that might ultimately have stemmed from running your business badly, but the result is that child has been disadvantaged, so, we’d support that too.”

    Clearly these are often complicated situations and the charity’s expertise must lie in the understanding that informs sensitive judgement and sound decisions.

    “I know everything does ultimately come from how you run your business, and we can’t directly fund a failing enterprise. But what we can fund is the fallout of how that failing business impacts the family.”

    Neil returns to the issue of getting across to potential clients that the charity is purely a gifting body and does not need to be paid back the money it gives out.

    “In many ways it’s making sure we get that message across, and that people understand that this is for them, and that they don’t have to pay it back and that they don’t have to be fearful. But what we do find is that a lot of retailers don’t particularly like opening up their bank accounts.”

    Who does, after all? Neil admits the charity loses a number of applicants because of this reluctance to reveal private circumstances, “but less than you might think”.

    “Most people we lose is because they have made a spurious claim that they worked in newsagents shop for a week and a half in 1983; or it’s people have worked at Matalan and think that they’re eligible in some way, which clearly they’re not.”

    The problem as it stands is that NewstrAid doesn’t get enough applicants advancing as far through the process as the Lightning Reach portal.

    A Helping Hand

    “I’m not sure what the reasons are,” Neil says, “but there’s a reticence, perhaps and we’d like to know if there is a bit of a ceiling within the Asian retail community and then find how to get through it. Because all we want to do is help more people.”

    To clarify, I ask whether it’s the case that, although the charity does not have unlimited funds, it does have more money to give out than it currently does, because there are not enough applicants for it – money left on the table, in other words.

    Neil confirms: “The truth is, if you if you look at our annual report, we’ve got about £13.5 million in the bank, and that sounds great, but £8 million of that – we don’t promise, but we have an ‘internal commitment’ – will support those people we already support until the end of their life.

    “We’ve tried to cast forward, looking at mortality rates, and so on, and we reckon that we would run out of money by about 2044. So we’ve got quite a lot of years left in us!”

    With £8 million “spoken for”, that still leaves £5 million, or five years of free reserves, to help those people that come along now and need support now.

    This means the charity is dispersing funds out of free cash flow and needs to keep that £5 million topped up every year – and that is where fundraising comes in.

    Would the charity want to add more people to that £8 million commitment and then raise more money in the free cashflow section to expand its activities?

    “Exactly that, and many people don’t move into the regular beneficiary part, but just come in and say, look, I’ve got a problem. I need a new washing machine; I need some white goods. We’ve had a flood and we need new carpets, we need new bedding, whatever it might be,” Neil describes.

    “If it’s just a one-off grant, that’s equally fine. And sometimes it’s easier to introduce people that way, so then we can build trust together and look at the longer term if the longer term is required. But there’s a lot of people with immediate needs now that we could support right now.”

    Is grant-giving seasonal as well, so that you give out more money in the winter for heating support, for example?

    “Yes, and with the winter fuel payment we often boost it and add another £100 or £150 to each of those grants, because energy costs have gone through the roof.”

    Fundraising

    It’s a generous and industry-wide charitable programme, so I am interested to ask what are the charity’s main routes of fundraising and where the money comes in from.

    “That is really interesting. The main money is from retail itself. We have a lottery programme, called the 200 Club, whereby retailers, as part of their news bill, pay £1.50 or £2 a week to be in a NewstrAid lottery – we have 13 dotted around the country, in Scotland, the southwest, the northeast, etc – and they can win prizes through that lottery.

    “The fee is added on to the news bill, which means that they need have to be news retailers to be giving to the scheme, and you also have to be a news-related retailer to benefit from the scheme.

    And if I’m honest, there’ll be a lot of retailers that probably don’t even know they are paying it, because they’ve got a £1000 news bill and then there’s £1.50 at the bottom! They have agreed to it at one point in time but it could have been 10 years ago – it’s all completely legal and legitimate and we seek counsel’s opinion every two years to make sure that the law hasn’t changed and so on. We’ve just gone through that process literally in the last two weeks.”

    A Helping Hand

    Neil explains that between 20 per cent and 25 per cent of the funds raised is for prize money, and the remainder goes to the beneficiaries to the charity.

    “Next, we raise money from publishers, and we have corporate sponsorships from various companies like News UK, the Daily Mail, Smiths News, Menzies, wholesalers, and so on, and we also run events. We’ve got our Lingfield Race Day coming up shortly.”

    I say that I noticed Neil and his staff completed the Three Peaks Challenge for the charity recently. He groans.

    “That was bloody hard work. Honestly, I thought it was going to be a long, fairly gentle uphill walk on the path …”

    A gentle uphill walk is not called ‘Peak’, I say. That’s the clue.

    “Yeah. And I’m from Yorkshire, I should have known better,” he laughs.

    “But the truth is, as you said earlier, that the industry is contracting, and we keep going back to the same well for that money. We’re always going back to Smiths and Menzies, News UK and The Mail and so on, and there’s only so many times you can go back before people say, ‘Enough!’”

    But isn’t it a regular donation thing – an industry charity, so they should support their own welfare?

    “It is, but it’s when you want to introduce something new, that it becomes difficult. They say, ‘We already do fund-raising, we already do your carol concert, we give you annual corporate sponsorship, and now you’ve got another thing.’ So, fundraising gets difficult, but we’ve been quite successful because our we’ve managed to add on corporate sponsorships every year. Where we started with one, we’ve now got eight, and it keeps growing.”

    “It’s quite hard work getting the money but eventually we get people to get some money out, it just takes a little while.”

    And in the meantime – just to round off – NewstrAid has announced it will be holding a special 185th birthday raffle as part of its anniversary celebrations this summer.

    Everyone from the newspaper and magazine industry is being invited to enter the raffle to help raise money for the work NewstrAid undertakes every year to support colleagues who are going through challenging times.

    Tickets are available online and the draw is scheduled to take place at the charity’s AGM in June. Prizes include dinner at an Ivy restaurant and £150-worth of John Lewis vouchers.

    “Following the success of our recent Christmas raffles we thought we would mark our 185th birthday with a special summer raffle that people can enter online,” says Neil. “There are some great prizes up for grabs thanks to support from our industry partners Seymour Distribution, Inter-Media and DMG Media, and we hope that as many people as possible will take the opportunity to wish us a ‘happy birthday’ by entering the draw.”

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