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Jody Reese Interview: Publisher of the Hippo Press

1. Tell us about your company and why you started it.
The Hippo Free Press is an unnewspaper. We publish weekly and are a more news magazine format with a large calendar and food section. We answer the vexing question of what to do and where to go in southern New Hampshire as well as address quality of life issues in the region, from traffic to the environment in an accessible fun way. From a very basic P&L standpoint, Hippo was started to provide advertising options for small businesses in the southern New Hampshire market. Looking over the market in 2000 we saw daily newspapers catering to national advertisers and large retail and auto customers. Similarly radio too focused on the national market. Many of the independent restaurants, retail and service businesses either didn’t advertise or felt their advertising was ineffective and expensive.

2. Describe the kinds of articles you publish, and who your target audiences are.
We tend toward quality of life type stories. We want readers to use our publication to get the most out of living in southern New Hampshire. We write about interesting political figures, new restaurant openings, and trends in live music. A recent issue explored the unusual life of birds in urban areas of southern New Hampshire. Our target audience is affluence, educated and active between the ages of 25 and 65. Most of our readers own homes and are married. This reflects the suburban nature of our market.

3. Describe the growth you’ve experienced over the years. Why do you think your publication caught on?
We started as a shoe-string operation with no employees, a few thousand weekly copies and 16 pages. Today we average 72 pages per week have the second largest circulation of any newspaper or magazine in the state and have 25 employees and 30 plus contributors. We have purchased a few other publications recently that are different from Hippo, but utilize our backend.

4. Most print newspapers that rely on paid subscriptions are dying out. What role is there for a free print newspaper in the digital age? What is your niche?
I’m not so sure I agree that paid papers are dying out. Clearly they face some daunting challenges in the classified arena, but many hold strong advertising positions in their areas of influence. And that I think is the key. It’s not as important what distribution model a paper uses, as finding a clearly defined advertising base. In the previous years daily newspapers tended to have a large base of classified advertising customers. Those customers have been moving toward more database driven models, such as craigslist or Monster. This has upended the paid daily business model. As for the role of free newspapers’ role in the digital age, I see free newspaper struggling with finding digital revenue streams just as much as the paid papers have struggled. The bottom line is you can’t earn enough revenue of a local audience online though banner ads. However, I do think that free and paid papers can use their digital platforms to create more value for current customers and maybe even use digital to break into new markets. Our niche from a customer perspective is small independently owned businesses with a touch of community banks and education.

5. In general, what are your thoughts on the death of the traditional news media? Why is it happening and how is this creating new opportunities for entrepreneurial journalists?
The term death is overused. People still watch the 6 o’clock news, they still listen to talk radio and, yes surprisingly, they even buy daily newspapers. True, some of the largest daily newspaper companies in the country have declared bankruptcy, but those bankruptcies are related to highly leveraged buyouts. In reality, large metropolitan dailies have created business models around a book of business that either doesn’t exist or that is moving to database driven avenues. If dailies are to survive they need to re-learn how to serve a local advertising base. That said, any business model upending creates plenty of business opportunities for entrepreneurs. People’s easy access to the Internet allows journalists to go after large affinity groups and create online communities that advertisers will pay to reach. I also see an opportunity for a one-person site to reach a large enough audience for that journalist to support themselves. The Internet lowers the cost of entering publishing but doesn’t mean it’s easier to be successful. Compelling content still needs to be created and an audience still needs to be reached. Both of these things are tough to do.

6. Who are your competitors and how have you succeeded where they failed?
We complete against several paid dailies, a few radio stations, cable, google and some glossy magazines. We’ve been able to pull a substantial number of advertisers out of the dailies’ weekly entertainment tabs. Most of those tabs offer very limited local content. We’ve also been successful against radio, which has seen a dramatic loss of audience and advertisers. Overall, on the business conversion side, we’ve been successful because we focus on small local businesses. More than 400 local businesses place display ads with us each month more than any of our competitors. On the audience side of the business we’ve been successful because we create compelling local content that isn’t available anywhere else. We keep standards high and keep advertising and editorial completely separate.

7. Do you have plans to expand?
We do, but not in a geographic sense. Last year we expanded our offerings to included commercial printing. We now sell most of our customers business cards, post cards and brochures. We can design, print and deliver those products very inexpensively with our current infrastructure. We also started a fan club to identify our most ardent readers.

8. How are you different than or similar to other free papers in other cities?
We’re not as youth oriented. Our market is more mature so we are too. We offer a large children calendar section and events for kids. We don’t have personals and don’t permit sex ads.

9. How has the recession affected your company and your competitors?
In some ways, the recession helped. We’ve seen many businesses that were once satisfied with their level of business start advertising to bring in new customers. Many unemployed or under-employed folks have decided it’s a good time to open a business. In the last year more than a dozen new restaurants have opened in our area. Almost all of them have some on board with us. This recession has really hurt those media outlets that rely on national advertising. Specifically radio and television stations have seen a steep decline in ad revenue. They have responded by trying to focus on the local market with lower rates to limited success. The dailies too have tried to attract more local customers by lowering rates. Both of these groups fail to realize it’s not the price of the advertising that’s the problem, it’s the value to the customers.

10. What lessons do you think your company’s story holds for small businesses in other industries?
Quality and focus. You just produce a good quality product and you need to have a customer base in mind that is large enough to support your business. We spend a lot of time and money creating compelling content so people will pick up our paper. This translates into a large audience with specific demographic traits that a certain group of local businesses need to reach. The key is “need.” If we didn’t exist how would the local cafe reach people? That’s how you know you have a solid place in the market that will survive recessions and changes in how people use technology.

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