Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Manchester (N.H.) Express turns corner

The 8,000-circulation Manchester (New Hampshire) Daily Express has been operating for about a year now and is close to getting into the black. In our series profiling free dailies, we caught up with Publisher Jody Reese and asked him the following questions about the Express.

Q: The Manchester Daily Express has been around for a year now -- How is it going?

Great. We've grown in circulation from 3,000 to 8,000 a day (Monday through Friday) and have expanded our local news coverage.

Q: Who owns the paper (please name names) and what other publications/media outlets do they own?

The Express is owned by HippoPress LLC. That in turn is owned by myself (Jody Reese), Jeff Rapsis and Dan Szczesny. The three of us started a weekly in 2001 called Hippo. That weekly has been quite successful. It's the largest weekly in the state and the most read paper in the greater Manchester (the state's largest city) area, beating out all the paid dailies. All three of us work at the papers.

Q: What can you tell me about sales in the seven months?

It was tougher than we thought it would be. For the first six month, it was a grind, but we turned a corner around Christmas. Our biggest challenge is convincing people that newspapers aren't dead. In an odd way, we've become champions of newsprint. I now keep a list of the five reasons why print is alive and well -- the Express is number one.

Q: Is the Manchester Daily Express in the black yet? Please separate out from your weekly, if possible. If your daily isn't profitable, when do you expect it will happen?

Cash flow is still negative for the daily, but we're getting close to the breakeven point. We expect that to happen in the next six to nine months.

Q: How large is your staff? Please break it down by editorial, sales, circulation, etc.

    • Editorial: 4
    • Sales: 2 (shared between 10 sales people who sell our other products)
    • Circulation: 1 (shared between three staffers who also distribute other products)
Q: How do you distribute your product (by hand, thrown on driveways, stores, work places, etc.)?

Bulk drops at our street boxes, convenience stores, work places, old-age homes, community centers, cafes and other public gathering areas.

Q: Since you started, what surprised you the most?

The misperception that newspapers are dead. Advertisers view our weekly as a magazine even though its printed on newsprint -- so we didn't run into that problem. With the free daily we ran straight into the print-is-dead wall. Every five-and-dime store owner thinks he's cracked the advertising world open by declaring no one reads newspapers any more. The worst offenders in this perception battle have been the paid dailies, running numerous stories about their decline in circulation and classified advertising. Almost all of these stories have failed to distinguish between paid and free dailies and weekly newspapers -- where the growth is. There also has been very little business reporting on strong college newspapers. Our challenge now is to tell a different story about the growth of free dailies in Europe and the success of free dailies in norther New Hampshire (the Sun newspapers).

Q: Some critics of free dailies say they don't have the quality journalism you could find in paid dailies. What do you say to that?

Bull. We break more stories than our paid daily competitor. However, we don't aspire to be the New York Times, and really who does. Our stories tend to average 400 to 500 words, but it's not dumbed down in any way. Our reporters write between two and three stories a day, so there isn't a lot of time for longer magazine-type articles. The Express doesn't have a Sunday or weekend component. Our weekly (Hippo) handles more of enterprise type stories. It fundamentally bothers me that people think the 50 cents they pay for a paid daily means that it's better than a free paper. Does 50 cents really buy you that much better journalism? Of course not. Most of the local paid daily newspapers I come across have one or two local stories on the front page and that's about it. The rest is Associated Press wire copy. Unfortunately, I just don't see much quality journalism in the vast majority of paid dailies.

Q: For publishers elsewhere in the United States, what have you learned that might help them put out a better or more profitable newspaper?

Spend less time on making your paper look flashy and more time reporting on local news that isn't available anywhere else. I don't find any value in a Metro-type free daily. Content is key.

Q: What is your average daily page count?

We're 16 pages rain or shine. Ten to 12 of that is local and the rest is wire copy. We're running about 20 percent advertising.