Top 13 Tawny tidbits for local rag trade success
In May 2020, Rupert Murdoch abandoned The Manly Daily’s print offering, shifting the publication exclusively online, locked behind a digital paywall. He’s an extremely wealthy American businessman, so it’s safe to assume he had sound commercial reasoning in mind when focusing on the cyber ether, but this decision was the catalyst for The Tawny Frogmouth monthly print mag’s creation.
With zero experience in journalism, magazine publishing, ad sales, community engagement, or really anything whatsoever that would lead a sane person to a margin of safety in deciding to march headlong into territory Rupert Murdoch chose to forsake, almost three years and 25 magazine issues later, here are my top 13 Tawny tidbits for local rag trade success.
If you’re considering starting up your own publication, print or otherwise, or if you’re interested in the actual nitty gritty and underlying mechanics of how a local magazine comes together, hopefully this listicle can help you on your way.
1/ Genuinely and deeply love the community you wish to provide a publication for. This is probably obvious, but it’s without doubt the most important piece of the puzzle. I love Sydney’s Northern Beaches. I was drawn here by the surf but quickly came to realise the community here is the most generous, engaged, passionate group of human beings anywhere on Earth. This is priceless, gets me up each morning energetic to find out more, show off local stories and do everything possible for the success of local people, businesses and organisations. You have no chance of creating a valued publication for your community if you don’t love it deeply and find something each day that puts you in awe of the place you live and the people you share it with.
2/ The letterbox is king. Growing up, I would save my pocket money to buy the latest Tracks mags each month at the newsagent, but times have changed, and if you create a print publication that you want people to read, you have to get it to them, literally as close to their living room as legally possible, their letterbox. If you can deliver it to their living room though, do it, and have some Tim Tams ready too, you’ll ensure a highly engaged readership, no question.
3/ Format your mag to be fit for purpose. Knowing point 2, the letterbox is king, the next issue of unrivalled importance is to ensure your mag actually fits in the letterbox too! The Tawny Frogmouth is A5, similar to a Reader’s Digest, about the size of, you guessed it, a letter. This means the mag fits neat, secure, safe and snug in the letterbox, ensures minimal room is clogged up as well as avoiding flappy bits out in the breeze, rain, hail, sleet, undesirables that will otherwise destroy the publication and infuriate the letterbox owner.
4/ Drive the hardest bargain you can on print costs. You’re creating a physical commodity, and while paper does grow on trees, pulp ain’t cheap, and it’s a monumental feedstock expense you have to absorb. Don’t accept the first quote, drive the hardest bargain you can, and demand the best possible price. You’re a ruthless industrialist after all.
5/ Go big, print truckloads of mags! Your risk of success and broad community engagement increases dramatically with borderline insane levels of commitment, so print as many mags as you can possibly muster. This does cost a fortune though, so be prepared for some sleepless nights of fiscal anxiety and learn quickly how to sell ads – which we’ll get to soon. The Tawny Frogmouth prints 50,000 mags each month. 47,500 are delivered direct to residential letterboxes, and 2,500 are placed in cafes, pubs, clubs, waiting rooms, libraries, highly frequented public places of all sorts. There are 110,000 letterboxes on the entirety of the Northern Beaches, and while it would be ideal to reach them all, 50,000 is a very solid commitment, ensures a comprehensive coverage to the community, and costs a king’s ransom to print too, but fortune favours the brave, at least that’s what I tell myself and hope holds true.
*Ensure your print is sourced from sustainably managed forests, silly not to.
6/ Build up your own delivery army. Unless you’re a prodigious walker, it’s no picnic delivering tens of thousands of magazines direct to letterboxes – though the very first Tawny Frogmouth’s 50,000 copies were essentially delivered completely by my stepdad and I, and it was a searing hot November back in 2020, still sweating, but the blisters on my tootsies have healed thankfully. Far smarter, and more sustainable, take a leaf out of Napoleon’s book and build an army of (delivery) foot soldiers. This obviously spreads the work around, but having your own inhouse delivery army puts you directly in touch with the community, means that if deliveries falter you know precisely who’s letting you down and can act on that immediately. This is your second big cost, but pay the walkers well, treat them with the reverence they deserve, your delivery army is the crucial conduit between all the hard yakka of creating the mag and actually getting it to the readers.
7/ We want to be told stories rather than have the news reported. I’m biased, with a background in novel and screenwriting, not journalism, and have been greatly influenced by the chief goal of novel and screenwriting – to elicit emotion. The greatest novels and screenplays revolve around characters, narrative drive and some memorable metaphors too if you’re lucky. This leads the reader to lean in, relate personally, put themselves in the story front and centre, to build an emotional connection with the yarn being spun. This is what I try to do as much as possible in the framework of Tawny articles. We’re telling stories here, and hoping the reader remembers the details and the local characters for a long while after they’ve put the magazine down. Meanwhile, news reporting is largely about getting the facts out. This is great, and important, but with a print mag that takes weeks or months between article creation and reaching the reader, we need stories that will strike a chord with a reader for months and years into the future.
8/ Life’s too short to be anything but positive, informative, and entertaining. In line with the storytelling focus above, The Tawny Frogmouth’s editorial framework focuses on showcasing local people doing cool stuff, and shining the brightest light on people and issues that are positive, informative, and entertaining. The ultimate goal here is that the reader will enjoy the content, obviously, but also be left with a sense of pride in their community. Most likely they’ve got a substantial amount of shekels owing to the bank or landlord in order to live here, the Northern Beaches is an expensive place to reside, but if the mag can remind them of how great the region is, inspire them with stories of local people undertaking all manner of impressive, courageous and occasionally outright bizarre endeavours, this ensures the reader closes the mag after reading and hopefully looks at their community with a sense of wonder, awe and pride. That’s perhaps a far too lofty aim, but I believe it’s one well worth striving for in every issue.
9/ Letters to the editor are a goldmine. We call them “Letters to the Tawny”, but you get the idea, and forget everything I said above, the letters are a safe space for locals to air their grievances and/or triumphs, to share their horror at pressing community issues such as who’s going to pick up all the dog poo or why on Earth is Council proceeding with some traffic management fiasco or bin pick up debacle. Each issue usually has 2.5 to 3 pages of letters, and the best ones are those which take aim at The Tawny Frogmouth itself, declaring what a woeful publication it is and/or what an idiot I am personally - yet they’re so engaged they feel the need to write in, so you know you’ve got a lifelong reader there, success! A local rag must have letters to the editor, simple as that.
10/ Cover your publication in artistic glory. Every issue of the Tawny starts with a unique cover art created by a local artist. This means the magazines always look amazing, but it’s also a phenomenal canvas for local artists to show off, reach a new audience, further their careers, and perhaps most importantly, when a reader opens their letterbox to see the latest issue of The Tawny Frogmouth there waiting for them, their first interaction with the magazine is to feast their eyes on a work of art. This sets the best possible tone from the outset.
11/ Local magazines must be FREE. This is pretty straightforward. If you want max engagement with local content, you can’t possibly charge for it. Not only must you get the goods to gargantuan sums of letterboxes or the most easily accessible public places, but you must also provide the mags for free. There is no other way.
12/ Your ads must be as cheap as viably possible, and you have to provide creative ideas - good ones!! – as part of the package. Selling ads is tough, and if you’re a purebred journalist who’s adamant you can’t “sell”, a local mag is no place for you to thrive, but the most important asset you must pay utmost attention to is that local businesses need local customers, and what better local customers could there possibly be than the loyal local readers of your publication who are community minded and eager to see local businesses thrive and support them in the process? Create a great magazine that tells heart-warming, informative, and entertaining stories of local people doing great things, and pitch local businesses on creative ideas of where and how their products and services can best align with the magazine’s platform, whether they’re tradies, accountants, breweries, banks, politicians, or more, they need local people to “invest” in them if they’re to be successful, and your commitment to reach tens of thousands of readers is a very profitable proposition that you should not only feel comfortable selling, but know without a doubt that you’re actually giving away a bargain here. If they still want to give all their money to Mark Zuckerberg or Google AdWords, fine, but make sure they know your print platform is a sure path to great customers. And help them with compelling slogans, powerful calls to action, and all the advertising 101 game changers between ads which sell and those which fall flat.
13/ Small businesses and grassroots organisations are the bedrock of community, treat them with the highest respect at all times, they deserve it. You’re going to come into contact with so many small business owners who dutifully work 80hours a week to keep their enterprise turning over, as well as countless amazing groups of community organisations who do all manner of selfless and incredible things to keep the community thriving. Do whatever you can to assist them. You will not only uncover phenomenal stories – fantastic content is always the aim – but you’ll also immerse yourself in the community, returning full circle to point number 1, filled with a genuine and deep love for the community you’re providing a publication for.
Rightoh, that’s everything I know, and I need to get back to preparing the next issue, and making sure 50,000 April mags are as top Tawny notch as they possibly Frogmouth can be.
Learn more about The Tawny Frogmouth magazine at:
Liam Carroll is the author of Slippery and Sweet Dreams of Fanta and several screenplays which he hopes to get rocking and rolling on the silver and/or any screen some day, especially Hooroo Love though, which he turned into a poem here in case you'd like to indulge in the story of Jack, an 80year old bloke from Boodji who sets off on an epic cross country adventure on his solar powered mobility scooter to fulfil his wife's dying wish.