Publishing franchisees making ultra-local magazines

Louise, Hazel, Lana and Sally are magazine editors, but they haven't got any editorial or design training between them.

Louise is a careers consultant to wayward teens, Sally's been cleaning railway platforms for 30 years, Lana's given up the civil service to look after her sick child and Hazel's done everything from catering at Manchester United to newspaper delivery for the Manchester Evening News.

Starting this year they'll be delivering ultra-local community news of their own, after winning a competition run by Take A Break. The prize was a year as editors of their area's Community Times, a 40-page monthly magazine franchise.

The winners are visiting the company's headquarters for a run-down on the challenge ahead. Community Times charges just under £5,000 for the first year and asks franchisees to go out and get editorial and advertising, split on a ratio of 13 pages of editorial to 27 pages of ads. In return, the Swansea-based company will hand you a magazine's template and will print and distribute 3,000 copies of the title to a demarcated area.

Community Times directors Mike Dickerson and Jonathan Gibbs claim that if editors put in the hours, franchisees can reap first month rewards of £2,000 gross profits. A master template of the magazine on Microsoft Publisher is a franchisee's starting point, into which each month's content and adverts can be dropped. Ads can be created by the editor using standard layouts or by the Community Times team for an additional fee. Dickerson says: "We are not trying to create Vogue, but we don't do incompetent design. When every magazine is sent through we copy read it and offer to tidy up anything."

Community Times babysits the editors on a monthly basis, offering assistance if the franchisee is having trouble getting ads in. A business system is set up, with databases of readers and advertisers and an accounting package, so franchisees know where costs and revenues stand. Each franchisee is allocated a production manager and an account manager; it's publishing with your hand held.

Content can be generic, but there's an opportunity for ultra-local journalism. The Take A Break winners have enough spark to write about more than the latest restaurant opening. Hazel, 45, is concerned about hospital closures, while 53-year-old Sally wants to write "the extraordinary stories of the ordinary people" that live in her community, Liskeard, in Cornwall. They are advised to go with local newsletter staples – charity dinners, school sports – but hard news hounds are not discouraged. Dickerson advises, however: "If you are going to comment on an issue in your community – and it is right and proper to do so – make sure you present both sides, but as an editor don't alienate members of the community."

It was this potential for local level reporting that encouraged Bauer's Take A Break to get involved with the project. Deputy editor Sophie Hearsey says the magazine was initially interested in Community Times because it focuses on the strengths of individual communities.

"A local magazine, run by a local resident, and circulated to other local residents is an excellent device to draw communities together," she says.

And there's the potential for dynamism too: "Yes, there is an element of a commercial project. But the project definitely lends itself to local journalism. After all, it is about the local community and what better place to write about local community than in your local community magazine?"

The Community Times team will maintain a local website for the franchisee which houses an online directory that businesses can sign up to for £20 a month, plus marketing through video advertising and SMS campaigns.

"At the moment we have a unique product – media groups will follow but for now its unique," says Dickerson. He adds: "We think Community Times has stolen a march on that. The first thing is that you can read all of our magazine online."

Community Times is not the only ultra-local magazine franchise. K9 Media, which specialises in pet-related media, has been developing a similarly localised magazine for the most affluent UK villages.

Publisher Ryan O'Meara launched the first Vivo in Ravenshead, North Nottinghamshire in December 2005, after he heard it had the highest ratio of millionaires per household in the country.

A further 11 are earmarked for this year, including an American version. Costs of a franchise can be up to £10,000 and are categorised by just how well-to-do your area. Vivo is still in its infancy, but works in a similar way to Community Times, though content is more strictly controlled.

The company gives its franchisee nationalised features which they then nip and tuck to give a more local feel. An interview with Channel 4 presenter Sarah Beany on property development is tweaked to include interviews with local estate agents. "We're the McDonald's of magazines," says O'Meara. "You don't have a choice on the core editorial and the cover."

Vivo is a quarterly, features-led magazine that isn't chasing local newspaper territory, according to its publisher.

"The big local player in the area is Johnston Press whose Mansfield Chad operates a magazine. We can fly under the radar of that. Johnston Press is not even thinking ultra-local, its too small for them – we're drilling down lower into parishes, estates and villages."

Regional press groups like Archant are active in the area, but its Archant Life monthly county magazines cover a larger area. O'Meara says Vivo doesn't steal local media's advertisers either.

Instead he has gotten high-end ads from Mercedes for its tiny but well-heeled audience. He cites an advert for a free luxury car test drive — which with a specifically targeted title like Vivo, the advertisers can efficiently reach who they want, while excluding who they don't. Just as a glossy national editor might, O'Meara adds: "We tend to turn down certain adverts because we take the view, and its snobby, but adverts for double glazing on our back page is not the image we want for our magazine."

Back at Community Times, there is a dizzying amount of information to take in, but the four winners are in good spirits. Lana, 28, from Kent, says she's so excited – she wants to get out there and get on with it. Hazel plans to use contacts gained by her community work and jobs to get gossip and advertising.

Louise, 28, who's from Wigan, has been digesting the information before speaking. "Do you have launch parties?" she asks. Now that's a magazine editor talking.

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