Their concept, Regional Life comprises six community magazines offered for free to a broad audience across the Blackwater Estuary region in Essex.
As a young man, Ralph first served in the RAF and then spent 40 years building a career as a Chief Officer in local authorities. But rather than retire quietly when the time came, he pursued his passion for the printed word and turned his hand to publishing community magazines, having seen the benefits derived from community activities. With Joy’s expertise as the local newsagent, and Ralph’s entrepreneurial flare, the Bartons have grown their brand organically over the years and today Regional Life publishes 38,000 magazines per month.
Each magazine provides a platform for local information exchange. Free editorial space is given to organisations and individuals who want to publicise news and events, or to share knowledge on local, seasonal and topical issues. “It’s a simple idea,” Ralph says. “People need community information. News about voluntary activities, charities and good causes is especially important. We’re providing a service.” Indeed, there are also frequent contributions from local councillors and politicians. Several MPs write monthly columns, offering another channel of communication to their constituents.
The magazines are funded by advertising revenue. Alongside community features there is designated space available for local businesses to place advertisements, with options to suit a range of budgets. A comprehensive directory listing all advertisers fills the centre pages of each publication, and businesses also have the option to pay for their own separate leaflets to be distributed within the magazines.
Two staff are employed in the Regional Life office on Mersea Island and a designer works remotely on the magazines’ layout. Together the team collates content – information coming in from the public along with advertisements from businesses – to draft 60-100 page proofs of the six individual titles. Some content is common across all six titles, but a substantial portion is unique and focused on the distinct communities served by each publication.
“We also run a competition called ‘Spot Ed’,” says Ralph, “where we hide a small character somewhere in the pages and offer a prize to someone who spots it. This gets people poring over the pages so they’re taking in all the local information plus of course seeing the ads from our businesses.” Each month a winner is selected and given a £100 voucher to spend with one of those local businesses. Ralph describes this as “closing the loop” and sees it as a way of thanking advertisers for their support. This sense of community spirit and civic pride is at the heart of Regional Life’s ethos.
Once the six proofs are finalised, they are sent to a specialist printer in Yorkshire which produces 38,000 full colour copies. These magazines are then transported to the Blackwater area and dispersed to over 40 local distributors who deliver the vast majority directly to people’s homes, with the remainder deposited at strategic pick-up points across the region.
From their inception the magazines have always been published routinely on the first Friday of every month. The only exception to this was April 2020, a consequence of the initial coronavirus pandemic lockdown. While the Bartons and their team managed to get the publications back up and running again within weeks, many local businesses continue to face daunting uncertainty. And although Regional Life has a solid base of over 300 repeat advertisers, such income can never be guaranteed. As Ralph explains, “We are a family run business, we have an excellent base from which we can launch new titles. However, there are overhead costs every month. From staff salaries to printing and distribution, these costs need to be covered and there’s only a small window of credit.” Having self funded the cashflow shortfalls arising from lockdown, Ralph decided to seek finance to fund panned new titles and in August 2021 he secured a loan from MaxCap, via a Chelmsford-based broker. “I liked being able to phone the office and speak to a local person,” he enthused. “She was very friendly and helpful.”
This funding helped to ease Ralph’s cashflow and enabled him to focus on his passion for community information and publishing, and to plan for the future. “We’re always looking for further expansion,” he concludes. “We intend to launch more titles in the region.”
Commenting on this positive news, MaxCap CEO, Alex Littner says “We’re thrilled to be making a real difference to businesses like Ralph’s. We understand the pressures on small, family businesses so we strive to keep things simple. We really want business owners to focus on what they do best. So we ensure our process is straightforward, quick, fair and transparent.”
To find out more about Regional Life please visit regionallife.co.uk